Guest Essayist: Horace Cooper, legal commentator and a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute

Amendment XXIII

1:  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.

2:  The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 1. 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…….

While many Americans – including many in Washington, D.C. – may not be aware, the Founders originally contemplated that Congress would be the primary authority over any and all aspects of the nation’s capital and not the residents themselves.

The 23rd Amendment changed the U.S. Constitution to allow residents of the District of Columbia to vote in Presidential elections.  Before the passage of this amendment, residents of Washington, D.C. were unable to vote for President or Vice President as the District is not a U.S. state. They are still unable to send voting Representatives or Senators to Congress.

Operating under the auspices of Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 [[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.] the Congress has nearly Carte Blanche to set up rules for the operation of the capital city.

The 23rd amendment places specific limits on Congress’ authority by its expressed grant of voting rights to DC residents.  However the grant is not unlimited.  It restricts the district to the number of electors of the least populous state, irrespective of its own population. As of 2010, that is Wyoming with three Electors.

The 23rd Amendment does not change the status of DC.  The language clearly establishes that D.C. is not a state and that its electors are only for Presidential elections. The House Report accompanying the passage of the Amendment in 1960 expressly states that the Amendment would not change the status or powers of the District:

[This] . . . amendment would change the Constitution only to the minimum extent necessary to give the District appropriate participation in national elections. It would not make the District of Columbia a State. It would not give the District of Columbia any other attributes of a State or change the constitutional powers of the Congress to legislate with respect to the District of Columbia and to prescribe its form of government. . . . It would, however, perpetuate recognition of the unique status of the District as the seat of Federal Government under the exclusive legislative control of Congress.

History shows that the government of the city of Washington and the District of Columbia have been dominated by Congress for most of the district’s history.   The Congress has expanded and restricted the franchise several times since the District’s creation.  In the 1820s Congress acted to let DC citizens vote for a Mayor and City Council.  After the Civil War changed course and created a territorial form of government for the district. All the officials, including a legislative assembly, were appointed by the president. This system was abandoned in 1874, when Congress reestablished direct control over the city government. From the 1870s forward until 1961 District residents had no rights to vote whatsoever.

The 23rd Amendment opened the door at the Presidential level and in recent years  Congress would expand the franchise further.  First, Congress allowed DC residents to elect a School Board. In 1970, DC citizens gained a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.

By 1973, Congress would pass the Home Rule Act which District residents approved in a special referendum in 1974.  This act allows citizens to elect a Mayor and City Council.

This is the present system operating in Washington, DC today.

Horace Cooper is a senior fellow with the Heartland Institute

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