The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.
The 23rd Amendment
The Twenty-third Amendment grants residents of the District of Columbia the electoral votes to participate in the election for the country’s President and Vice President. From 1800 until 1960, when Congress passed the Twenty-third Amendment, residents of the District of Columbia were not constitutionally able to participate in presidential elections. Residents voted for President for the first time in 1964 after the states ratified the Twenty-third Amendment. To understand the significance of this Amendment, one must first understand the Founders’ purpose in creating District of Columbia.
The Founders designed the District of Columbia to protect the federal government. Since the federal government exercises certain powers over state governments, having the capital city located in one particular state would give that state tremendous influence over the federal government. Allowing one state to control the federal government would violate the principle of federalism. Here’s how James explained it in Federalist No. 43:
The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of Government carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every Legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings be interrupted, with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general Government, on the State comprehending the seat of the Government for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the Government, and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy.
The Twenty-third Amendment gives D.C. a voice in selecting the president and vice president through the Electoral College, but clarifies that D.C. is not a state: D.C. receives the number of electoral votes “equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State.”
The Amendment also empowers Congress to decide the method by which the District selects presidential electors. This is comparable to the power given to state legislatures. Currently, the District of Columbia has a maximum of three electoral votes, regardless of population. Congress chose a winner-take-all system (the same system used in every state but Maine and Nebraska) to choose presidential electors, meaning that the candidate who receives the majority of votes in a popular vote receives all of the District’s electors.
The Twenty-third Amendment underscores the Founders’ wisdom in designing the federal city. The Founders wisely crafted a federal district for the seat of government. They made the capital independent from, and therefore not subservient to, the authority of a particular state.
Julia Shaw is Research Associate and Program Manager in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.
May 31, 2012