This letter was sent on July 8, 2016 to the entire DC Council.
DC for Democracy is an active member of the DC Statehood Coalition and our members are among the most active supporters of statehood. We are heartened that the statehood initiative proposed by the New Columbia Statehood Commission has generated interest and raised awareness of the movement. We are pleased at the time and energy the Mayor has devoted to the statehood initiative and are committed to maintaining the momentum for statehood in the coming year.
We are, however, very concerned that several aspects of the statehood initiative are seriously problematic, resulting in lessened support for the Advisory Referendum. Many of these problems can be avoided while retaining the essence of the Commission’s “Tennessee Plan” if the referendum is simplified as follows: “We, the voters of the District of Columbia, advise the Council to petition Congress to admit the State of New Columbia into the Union.” The Council can still proceed to adopt a new constitution and finalize the state boundaries by early next year in order to satisfy the requirements for petitioning Congress for statehood.
Problems with the Current Approach
The statehood initiative includes several troubling aspects, and we worry that as these problems become better known, support for the Advisory Referendum will be undermined and lasting damage done to the statehood movement.
The process that created the draft constitution included a “constitutional convention” with no real authority, and significant amendments to the constitution were made at the June 28 meeting of the Commission with inadequate deliberation, e.g., the expansion of the Council to 21 members and the transition of the shadow delegation to the status of congressional representatives.
Voters are currently under the misperception that the Advisory Referendum constitutes official ratification of the constitution and is a legal requirement for Congress to admit New Columbia to the Union. In truth, the referendum has no force of law (hence “advisory”) and is simply an expression of public opinion.
When the Advisory Referendum is put to a vote on November 8, the Council would not yet have finalized the constitution. At the most, the Council would have held a first vote on the draft. As the wider public learns that they will be voting on a constitution without knowing exactly what it will contain, support for the referendum will be undermined. The Council should not be put in the embarrassing position of modifying a document that has been approved by the public.
These aspects of the current process provide ample ammunition for those who would challenge our readiness for statehood, both inside and outside DC. While the media coverage to date has portrayed the entire process as a public relations campaign, closer scrutiny will be paid in the ensuing months and has real potential to damage the reputation of the DC government. The Washington Post has already published one opinion piece that is highly critical of the process. In a city filled with lawyers and public policy experts, more negative publicity is likely to follow.
A Better Approach
We can all agree we must continue building momentum for statehood, and this can be done by following the Tennessee Plan. Passage of the Advisory Referendum this November with an overwhelming majority, together with the Council directly petitioning Congress for admission next year, will achieve that purpose.
To ensure that the Advisory Referendum passes by an overwhelming majority, the ballot language should be made as simple and uncontroversial as possible, e.g., “We, the voters of the District of Columbia, advise the Council to petition Congress to admit the State of New Columbia into the Union.” This would mean that the constitution and boundaries would not be approved by the people of the District of Columbia this November. In doing so, we avoid the problem of voting on a constitution that is still in process, and the controversy of the Council amending a constitution that the people have approved. We also avoid the meaningless exercise of the public voting on the highly technical matter of boundaries. By avoiding these problems, we avoid negative publicity that can damage the statehood movement.
Meanwhile, the Council can proceed to adopt a new constitution and finalize the boundaries, in order to follow the Tennessee Plan and directly petition Congress for admission into the Union. The public would support the Council taking these actions if they are assured that a proper constitutional convention will be held in due time. A convention with elected delegates that will take the time to engage in deliberation is the only approach that ensures the constitution will be fully accepted by the public. It was the approach chosen by Alaska and Hawaii, the last states admitted into the Union. Why would New Columbia do less?
A constitutional convention also serves the practical purpose that it assures the legitimacy of the new constitution. Nobody will be happy with every element of the constitution; what will allow the public to support a constitution is the legitimacy of the process by which it was created. Support for the new constitution will also be undermined if it is unduly politicized and associated with particular elected officials. If, on the other hand, it is associated with a group of people who were elected specifically to draft the constitution, it is much less likely to be subject to passing political winds.
A constitutional convention will necessarily take time. That is a positive feature, for it will generate national and international media attention during the time it will take to complete, providing additional momentum to the statehood movement.
Some have suggested that we should not go beyond minuscule changes to the Home Rule Charter for fear of giving ammunition to opponents of statehood. If anything, a rushed and undemocratic process for creating a new constitution might very well provide such ammunition for opponents of statehood. A proper constitutional convention might reconsider the name “New Columbia”, give thought to a bicameral legislature or reconsider the number of representatives, investigate a better mechanism for filling vacant seats in the legislature, and debate other reasonable improvements to the current draft constitution. It is hard to believe that such reasonable and thoughtful reforms will cause genuine supporters of statehood in the Congress to oppose admitting us into the Union.
A constitution drafted by a constitutional convention would still need to go through the Council, providing another layer of review. If the Council itself initiates the constitutional convention, it will earn considerable good will from the public.
Among those who are paying close attention to the statehood initiative, there is agreement that the Advisory Referendum should be simplified and should not include approval of a constitution or boundaries. It is our sense that the Council will receive broad support from the general public in making these changes to the Advisory Referendum.