It’s Election Day, and hopefully most of you are braving the cold and the lines at your local polling place to make sure your voice is heard. If you cast your ballot for a presidential candidate in the District, you exercised a right that has only been around for 52 years; that’s how long DC residents have had the right to vote in presidential elections, a right granted by the 23rd Amendment.
The “District Clause” of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, for those of you with pocket Constitutions handy) states:
[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.
This clause essentially gives Congress complete power to govern the capital city. (We’ll write more about how DC started electing its own mayor and city council in future posts.)
In 1801, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act, which drew the boundaries of the new city around land ceded from Maryland and Virginia. Congress used its powers granted in the District Clause to establish full legal authority over the city. Residents of the new district lost their right to vote for President and Vice President because they no longer lived in a state.
Washingtonians did not gain the right to vote in presidential elections again until 1961, when Congress and the required 38 states ratified the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment granted DC the same number of electors as the least populous state, which currently is Wyoming. (Even without this restriction, however, DC would still only have three electoral votes based on its population.)
In 1964, DC voters came out to the polls to cast their ballots for President for the first time. Their three electoral votes have supported the Democratic candidate ever since.
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 17 (repealed 1961).
U.S. Const. amend. XXIII.
District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, ch. 62, 1871 Stat. (1871). Accessed November 6, 2012.
Table 1. Annual Estimates of the Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011 (NST-EST2011-01)