Since Mayor Bowser announced her statehood initiative in April, the celebratory mood has gone from one of exuberance to consternation among some statehood supporters in just a short few months. The debate over the content of the Mayor’s proposed new statehood constitution and the sequence for its ratification have caused flurries of discontent.

Now, according to council Chairman Mendelson’s office, the final statehood constitution is unlikely to be put on the ballot in November for a vote up or down. However, the language of the city’s “advisory” referendum states that D.C. voters who approve the referendum “would establish that the citizens of the District of Columbia … approve a Constitution of the State of New Columbia to be adopted by the Council…” In other words, the D.C. Council may add or subtract whatever language it likes and call it a constitution, without District residents actually knowing what’s inside when they vote to approve it in the November.

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One of the Statehood Commission’s members, “Shadow" Senator Paul Strauss, stated during the convention proceedings that “we have come up with the most inclusive constitutional convention process ever devised… Literally any citizen of the District of Columbia can petition and become a delegate to this convention and weigh in. We no longer need 40 people in a room.”

What Mr. Strauss overlooks, of course, is that none of the Statehood Commission members, including the Mayor, the Chairman of the D.C. Council and the three “Shadow” representatives, were elected by D.C. citizens to represent them in this statehood convention process. The history of territorial admissions into the Union indicates that the hard, sometimes polarizing work of constitution construction is the exclusive domain of duly elected delegates to the statehood constitutional convention.

Traditional statehood delegates are normally elected directly by the people of the territory. It is nowhere apparent that they are derived from the sitting executive, legislators or lobbyists, although they could certainly be among the elected. These few  delegates are normally charged by their constituents to write the foundational constitution.

As the territorial residents of Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii expected the right to elect statehood convention delegates to write their emerging state constitutions, so, too, should D.C. residents because they deserve a genuine statehood convention, not the mere shadow of one. They should also be given the right to ratify their new constitution, once it’s been adopted by the convention delegates and they've had a chance to read it.

This process has worked well for other U.S. territories, so why not for the District of Columbia? In 1955,for instance, the Territory of Alaska chose to elect 55 delegates to their statehood convention to write up a new constitution. The delegates sat for 75 days and a few months on, it was ratified.

Likewise, in 1950, the territorial residents of Hawaii took to the ballot box to vote in 63 delegates to represent them at their own state convention. The delegates were “apportioned among the counties and city and county,” and “chosen by non-partisan ballot.” They met for 3 months and 3 months later, the constitution they wrote was ratified by the people.

Back in 1906, the Oklahoma Territory prepared for state admittance by voting in 112 delegates. Their job? To carve out a brand new constitution. The people ratified it a year later, in a fully democratic process.

In 1910, the Territory of Arizona elected 52 convention delegates, from each of its 3 counties. The result was an impressive state constitution that got ratified by a 79%-21% margin the very next year, and one that clearly reflected the sentiments of the local residents.

Also in 1910, 100 delegates were elected by the inhabitants of the Territory of New Mexico with the purpose of having them shape the contours of their state constitution. The partisan convention went on for 60 days, but it was adopted by the voters two months later. In 1912, New Mexico was finally admitted as a state.

In each of these territories, delegates were elected by the people to serve this purpose. After which, the constitution was ratified by the voters. What the New Columbia Statehood Convention was was not this.

Whether Washington, D.C. becomes a state any time soon is anyone’s guess. To get there, much has to happen: Democrats must reclaim the House and Senate by large margins; Secretary Clinton must be elected; conservative Democrats must be brought around; and statehood legislation must overcome a searing constitutional challenge. These are fairly high hurdles; but, still, it could happen.

But what’s easier to do in the mean time is for the D.C. residents to take control of their own state-making destiny and insist on their elected local government granting them the right to hold an authentic statehood convention, which includes elected delegate of their own choosing, with the authority to ratify any constitution written with the knowledge of what’s inside. If we’re going to call ourselves democrats, if we’re going to function like we’re a gonna-be state, and if we’re going to really be the new New Columbia we’d like, then let’s start acting like bona fide democrats—right from the get-go.


Timothy Cooper is a long-time D.C. voting rights and international human rights advocate.