DC Statehood and Power Politics

More voice, more votes, more representation.

George Will had a column this week that was in opposition to DC statehood, The anti-constitutional D.C. statehood pretense, that strikes me as pompously unserious the way that George Will can be.

Note his intro paragraph:

The Democratic-controlled Congress will soon try to transform part of the District of Columbia, which today is about one-eighteenth the size of Rhode Island but 18.9 percent larger than Denver International Airport, into a state. This will involve theatrical and constitutional difficulties.

Yeah, cool. The physical space is small (and a Google search provided a really big airport for comparison!). And yet the population is greater than Vermont and Wyoming (and is a stone’s throw from Alaska’s). Is it too much to note that the first three words of the preamble as “We the people”? Or that Lincoln spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? Or how about Jefferson and the “created equal” bit? (One could go in this vein for a very long time).

But let’s dispense with rousing historical quotations and focus on the simple fact that people are more important than real estate or the size of the container wherein those people reside. Alaska has about 30,000 more residents than does DC, but it should be a state because it has so much more empty space than does DC? Does that even make sense when you stop and think about it?

BTW, Google tells me that the Dallas/Fort Worth Internal Airport is larger than the Island of Manhattan. Manhattan has at least parts of four congressional districts, two of which are contained solely on the island. So if size of land-mass is the issue, should DFW has at least 2 members of the House? Denver International is even bigger than DFW in landmass. Should they have representation?

Or, might it be that size of landmass is not the relevant variable?

(For those who care, Manhattan has a population of over 1.6 million, which would rank it as 40th in population if it was a state by itself, giving it two US Reps).

The heart of Will’s taunt (I am not sure it is an argument) is largely this:

The Democrats’ theatrical challenge will be to keep straight faces while insisting that their motivation is altruistic: indignation about D.C. residents paying federal taxes without being fully represented in Congress. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan came within 3,761 Minnesota votes of carrying all 50 states, but won less than 14 percent of D.C. votes. In 2020, Donald Trump won 5.4 percent of the D.C. vote. San Francisco will never vote Republican but will do so before D.C. does. Democrats insist, however, that this is irrelevant to them: Their interest is the inviolable principle “no taxation without representation.”

So, do Democrats argue the “no taxation without representation” notion? Yes, they do. Is it accurate? Yes, it is, as citizens of DC have no direct say in national legislation. This is a cut and dry fact.

Now, do some Democrats emphasize this fact and downplay, if not pretend not to notice, that a new state carved out of DC would help them politically. Yes, they do. And Will, who has been a studying, participating in, and/or commenting on politics longer than I have been alive (he is a few months older than my father), knows full well that politicians shade arguments to emphasize that which is advantageous and to de-emphasize that which is not.

What I find noteworthy here is that the half-truth (mentioning taxation without representation while ignoring the realpolitik of DC statehood) is still true and a compelling reason for statehood in and of itself.

Note: I do not know what he is referring to in the link above in terms of Democrats insisting on the irrelevancy of how Democratic voters in DC are, as the link in the original is null, just as I have copied it above. I am not sure that all proponents of statehood focus solely on this issue. I do think proponents ought to be willing to note, if not promote, that yes, this will increase representation of Black and urban interests and that the only party trying to do that is the Democratic Party, so yes, this would lead to more Democrats in the Senate.

Look, Republicans are not shy that they are willing to deny these citizens their rights because they don’t want more Democrats in Congress. (And look, add PR, too, as there is a chance they will send some Reps to Congress).

Will notes some legal and constitutional complexities in the rest of the column that are not as difficult to surmount, in my view, as he makes them out to be, but I am open to having my mind changed. I think that Congress’ power to admit states overrides almost all of the concerns and that the only real conundrum would be the three EVs left to the new version of the District.

But I think all of that is a distraction at the moment that allows lofty and complicated sounding issues to obscure the core issue: there are a lot of citizens that live in the District who do not have some of the basic rights of citizenship as do most Americans.


Let me be extremely straightforward about why I support DC statehood.

My baseline/most fundamental reason is that all citizens ought to have representation in the national legislature. The only way for that to happen under our constitution is for citizens to live in a state. The constitution could be amended to allow for House members only, but this seems rather unlikely. And, of course, that would still deny citizens of DC representation in the Senate.

I could live with retrocession to solve the most fundamental representation problem but as far as I understand it, neither DC residents nor the states in question want that.

(And yes, for any readers unaware of my position on this: I think all US citizens in the territories should have, at a minimum, a vote for president and for the House).

And when we are talking about representation, let’s not forget that DC is half Black and therefore is a specific case of clear under-representation of Black citizens at the national level. And yes, it is small in physical size and urban. It is beyond debate that urban voters are underrepresented in Congress, so an urban state is a bonus in this category.

I would further note that the lack of representation for the citizens of a federal district is another example of American exceptionalism, and not in a good way. Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, India, Malaysia, and Mexico have federal districts and each has representation in Congress, including the national chamber. Other federal democracies, like Germany, include citizens of the capital in other ways (they have representation in the legislature). Colombia, a unitary democracy (i.e., non-federal) has a capital district, and that district has seats in the first chamber (the second chamber is elected from a nationwide district, and individual voters in Bogotá have the same voting strength as voters anywhere in the country).

Democratic theory and practice both suggest that citizens of DC should not be excluded from national politics.

As far as the Senate is concerned, yes, any addition of a small population state actually exacerbates the malapportionment of the chamber. This points to the fundamental design flaw of the chamber itself from the word go and does not speak to whether or not the roughly 700,000 residents of the state deserve the same representation as the residents of the fifty states. If giving 700,000 residents two Senators seems of whack, I concur, but unless there is a movement to fix the Senate itself, that’s how it works. And if we have to err in one direction or the other, I would prefer erring in the direction of representation over not.

Put another way: if you think DC’s population is too small to be represented in the Senate, I have some bad news for you about a number of states who already have representation in the chamber.

But let me be very straightforward and less abstract: I fully understand that this would be adding two Democratic Senators to the mix. Until the Republican Party finds a way to be competitive with urban voters generally and Black voters specifically, odds are awfully good that a state formed from DC would always send two Democrats to the Senate.

Given the wholly unbalanced nature of the Senate that skews towards rural voter despite the fact that they make up a distinct minority of the national population, I support any move that helps address that imbalance, even if that move is slight. I also think adding states (I also support adding PR) is a constitutional way to help counter-balance voter suppression attempts by Republicans in many states.

I support more voices, more votes, more competition, and more representation.

The best route to that set of goals is substantial reform of the electoral system and to structure of the Congress itself. Since that isn’t going to happen any time soon (although I will continue to advocate for it), I will advocate for doable reform in the meantime.

And look, is this power politics on the part of the Democrats? Yes, it is. And they really shouldn’t shy away from that. If the Republicans want to play power politics to suppress the vote at the state level, Democrats have every reason to play power politics to expand representation.

Which power politics is morally more defensible?


For broader context, some of my previous posts:

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, Democratic Theory, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I completely agree with the idea that DC should become an autonomous city or federal district like CABA or Brasilia(Meaning, a federal district with representation at federal level) , but it’s important to note that CDMX became a state in 2016.

    But, yes, that would be the best arrangement, where the federal and local political functions of DC could be properly arranged. Germany has some state-cities like Bremen, but considering DC the Brasilia-CABA-Kuala Lumpur would be the better solution. But that would require a constitutional amendment, and Republicans wouldn’t be willing to accept that.

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  2. @Andre Kenji de Sousa: True about Mexico City and that there are other kinds of solutions, but they all would need amendments.

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  3. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, and I think that Republicans would be more honest if they were at least debating them, because the argument that a city shouldn’t be a state is not bad. And you are right, I think that the US is the only country in the Americas with territories without federal representation(Even Rapa Nui is a province in Chile and Fernando de Noronha is part of the State of Pernambuco). Both the territories in Canada and Venezuela have federal representation.

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  4. Andy says:

    Of course, there is the unmentioned alternative, which Democrats have opposed for as long as I can remember – transferring the populated portion DC back to Maryland as was done with the Virginia retrocession.

    So sure, Democrats want representation for the residents of DC (and I want that too), but they want two more Senate seats even more than that.

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  5. @Andy:

    the unmentioned alternative

    Actually, this is very much mentioned in the post (and in Will’s column) and I directly address it and the political preferences of Democrats.

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  6. @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    because the argument that a city shouldn’t be a state is not bad.

    It is a reasonable position, although I think the main problem is that this entire debate casts light on the ridiculousness of Senate seat allocation.

    The Birmingham, AL metro area is more populated than Alaska, for crying out loud.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Tell you what: why don’t we ask the citizens of DC whether they want to be a state or be transferred to Maryland. Then ask the citizens of Maryland whether they want a new city. And, when the DC residents say they want to be a state, and Marylanders say, ‘um, no thanks,’ we can drop that particular nonsense.

    But hell, if we’re redrawing state lines willy nilly, let’s dispense with the North and South Dakotas – one Dakota is plenty – fold Wyoming into Colorado, Vermont into New Hampshire, Rhode Island into CT or MA and give West Virginia back to Virginia? And we could shop Mississippi and Alabama around on the open market and see if any other state (or even country) wants them.

    Or, crazy thought, we could refer to First Principles as Steven suggests, and recognize the fact that by the logic of our own Constitution, the logic of our revolution, we don’t get to tax people or make laws for people, who don’t get a vote.

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  8. @Michael Reynolds: FWIW, in a 2019 poll, a majority of Maryland citizens preferred DC statehood over retrocession.

    Link

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  9. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Actually, this is very much mentioned in the post (and in Will’s column) and I directly address it and the political preferences of Democrats.

    I meant unmentioned by Democrats, for the reasons I noted. They seem to care about representation only if it gets them additional Senate seats.

    Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that DC was a GoP stronghold, and adding DC as a state would give the GoP two more Senators. In this hypothetical, I think you’d see most people suddenly switch sides.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that as that is the way politics works, but one should be skeptical about claimed motivations. Point being, the question of statehood for DC and PR (and even other territories) in national politics is entirely about the distribution of power in the Senate. Democrats want to create more Democratic Senators. Republicans oppose this. I think you and I are in the trivially small minority that focuses more on first principles than the cui bono that dominates partisan motivated reasoning.

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  10. Google also tells me that in 2016 86% of DC voters said they preferred statehood.

    If we are going on democratic principles: Maryland doesn’t want them, DC wants statehood, and representation should be valued.

    So, carve a new state out of DC.

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  11. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    But hell, if we’re redrawing state lines willy nilly, let’s dispense with the North and South Dakotas – one Dakota is plenty – fold Wyoming into Colorado, Vermont into New Hampshire, Rhode Island into CT or MA and give West Virginia back to Virginia? And we could shop Mississippi and Alabama around on the open market and see if any other state (or even country) wants them.

    This is a fun game to play, but my goal would be to create more states, not fewer states. So instead of consolidation, I’d look instead at breaking up the bigger states. Perhaps in the ballpark of doubling the number of states.

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    That works, too. Los Angeles County (~10 million people) could be its own state. (Though where we’d get our water. . . ). There are at least five natural ‘states’ just in California – Bay Area, Mid-coast, LA, weed country, and The Land of Almond Trees.

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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Alaska has about 30,000 more residents than does DC, but it should be a state because it has so much more empty space than does DC? Does that even make sense when you stop and think about it?

    Hey! Will no one think of the caribous or the meeses? Don’t they deserve representation too???

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  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    FWIW, in a 2019 poll, a majority of Maryland citizens preferred DC statehood over retrocession.

    I should think so. Maryland’s not a big state (6 million). They have one city, Baltimore (600K). Maryland’s top income tax rate is 6%, and DC’s is 9%. Maryland gets all the advantages of a big, powerhouse employer right next door, without the tax burden.

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  15. The only viable solution to the D.C. statehood issue is retrocession of the District not used by the Federal Government to Maryland

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  16. gVOR08 says:

    DC residents should have normal representation as a state. DC statehood is a ploy by Dems to gain power. Both statements are true. The moral of this story is that the beauty thing about being liberal is you can do well by doing good

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  17. D.C statehood will diin the Senate because of the filibuster and Democrats don’t currently have enough of to eliminate the filibuster.

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  18. Michael Cain says:

    Perhaps interesting, the official population of the land DIA occupies is precisely zero. The agreement under which the City and County of Denver purchased the land from the neighboring county forbids any sort of residence inside the airport boundaries.

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  19. @Andy:

    I meant unmentioned by Democrats, for the reasons I noted. They seem to care about representation only if it gets them additional Senate seats.

    Gotcha. But also as noted in the OP, of course that is true.

    Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that DC was a GoP stronghold, and adding DC as a state would give the GoP two more Senators. In this hypothetical, I think you’d see most people suddenly switch sides.

    100% But in this hypothetical example, wherein an urban center that was almost half Black was a GOP stronghold, our politics would be a lot different than they are.

    Point being, the question of statehood for DC and PR (and even other territories) in national politics is entirely about the distribution of power in the Senate. Democrats want to create more Democratic Senators.

    Well, not entirely.

    But, of course, as it often noted, reforms tend to happen when there is some level of political advantage by those doing the reforming.

    And I call all of this “power politics” very much on purpose.

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  20. @Doug Mataconis: Given the general lack of interest in that solution, it doesn’t seem all that viable to me.

    @Doug Mataconis: This is true. That may yet change. Don’t get me wrong, I would hardly bet that it is going to happen. But I think that odds are higher now than they have ever been.

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  21. @Michael Cain:

    the official population of the land DIA occupies is precisely zero

    I expect this is true of DFW as well.

    But just think of all that land!

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  22. @gVOR08:

    DC residents should have normal representation as a state. DC statehood is a ploy by Dems to gain power. Both statements are true.

    This is where I am at at the moment.

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  23. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is a reasonable position, although I think the main problem is that this entire debate casts light on the ridiculousness of Senate seat allocation.

    It casts. You rightly so pointed out some months ago that if DC were a Republican state people would argue against statehood, pointing out that people would be complaining that it would be another Wyoming. 😉

    To me the Federal District that elects Senators and HR would be better than a state. But there is no excuse to have territories without Federal Representation in 2021.

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  24. @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    But there is no excuse to have territories without Federal Representation in 2021.

    This is really, for me, the foundation of all of this. The citizens in DC, PR, and the other territories deserve representation.

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  25. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Perhaps but if we’re going to give statehood to DC statehood what about places like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam?

    The people who live Jhere are also American citizens who do not have voting representation in Congress.
    Z

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  26. @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I agree that the odds are better than they have been before nut I don’t expect it will happen

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  27. @Doug Mataconis: As noted here and elsewhere, I favor statehood for PR as well as representation for all US citizens in all the territories.

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  28. @Steven L. Taylor;

    Fair enough

    As far as the politics of all this, politics and power have been an issue in the admission of new states since the Comprise of 1820

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  29. @Doug Mataconis:

    As far as the politics of all this, politics and power have been an issue in the admission of new states since the Comprise of 1820

    Well, indeed.

    Going back to 1776, in fact.

    My point is that one can debate this in the abstract and one can debate this in the context of given power constellations in a given moment.

    (And it is always true that something like this is difficult to achieve).

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  30. JohnMcC says:

    A life-lesson learned long ago: All motives are mixed. Including mine.

    It is serendipitous when the simple politics of winning votes coincides with the virtuous choice. Doesn’t make that choice less virtuous.

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  31. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Well, since DC statehood appears unlikely in the near future, and since Maryland apparently doesn’t want the land back, why not make it a game? Every two years, the names of the 50 states are put into a hopper and one is drawn. All DC voters will then have the right to vote in that state’s elections, under Federal supervision. It might lead to some interesting reversals in electoral patterns. Every state should have a fair chance to get DC’s votes.

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  32. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    As noted here and elsewhere, I favor statehood for PR as well as representation for all US citizens in all the territories.

    Whether the people of PR and the territories favor that is an open question. Certainly nothing is stopping them from formally petitioning for statehood.

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  33. @Andy: Well, they voted in favor back in November.

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  34. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Andy:

    Whether the people of PR and the territories favor that is an open question.

    In PR and a lot of other territories there is some ambiguity about statehood. But other countries allows their territories to have federal representation both in the upper and lower house of Parliament.

    In fact, the elephant in the room about Guam and Mariana Islands is that they don’t scream “Safe Dem” so there aren’t people on Twitter demanding representation(And two very safe Democratic Senators) for them. But according to polls the status quo seems to be very unpopular

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  35. @Andre Kenji de Sousa: I think another reason that statehood for Guam isn’t as front and center is that it’s population is like 160K and the Mariana Islands around 50k.

    I still think they deserve the right to vote for president and to have representation in the House at a minimum, but the numbers are pretty small and complicate a solution.

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  36. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, they voted in favor back in November.

    If PR really wants a union, they need to demonstrate more commitment than a non-binding resolution. That they haven’t done a formal petition or something like the Tennessee Plan suggests they are not really committed. Congress should not consider legislation on statehood for PR until they do IMO.

    I think another reason that statehood for Guam isn’t as front and center is that it’s population is like 160K and the Mariana Islands around 50k.

    I still think they deserve the right to vote for president and to have representation in the House at a minimum, but the numbers are pretty small and complicate a solution.

    I’m not sure how that could be accomplished without a Constitutional amendment. And I would be reluctant to support an effort to grant voting and representation equivalent to citizens of a state without the requisite obligations like paying federal taxes. For this reason, I think statehood for DC is the most reasonable proposal, but would still prefer retrocession.

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  37. @Andy:

    If PR really wants a union, they need to demonstrate more commitment than a non-binding resolution.

    As I understand it, the referendum from November requires a commission to be named that is charged with petitioning Congress.

    We shall see if it actually comes to pass.

    On the one hand, of course, they have to petition.

    On the other, you said “Whether the people of PR and the territories favor that is an open question. ” And I demonstrated that as recently as November they did so. Again, rather obviously just that vote is not enough.

    So, agreed:

    Congress should not consider legislation on statehood for PR until they do IMO.

    I am in no way suggesting otherwise.

    I’m not sure how that could be accomplished without a Constitutional amendment.

    I am sure it couldn’t.

    And I would be reluctant to support an effort to grant voting and representation equivalent to citizens of a state without the requisite obligations like paying federal taxes.

    That’s part of the deal, so agreed.

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  38. A more general comment to the thread as a whole: I am trying to be clear when I am supporting abstract positions (such as representational rights for all Americans, regardless of place of residence) and what specific practical proposals I am supporting.

    While probably not the intention, it seems like above when I talk about support from an issue on the table (DC statehood), I am asked about the territories, but when I state support about representation for all American as an abstract principle, I am told about the practical barriers to such outcomes.

    All of this is probably the difficulties associated with blog comment boxes.

    But, it all starts to feel a bit circular and/or even missing the point to a degree.

    To be clear:

    I have a long-standing view about general representation for all citizens, including those living outside the boundaries of states.

    I fully understand all of the constitutional barriers to that outcome. Indeed, the constitution itself is the basis of the barriers because it conceives or representation solely in terms of states.

    At the moment, the only proposal that Congress is even semi-inclined to address is DC statehood.

    Yes, there are clear partisan motivations behind DC statehood.

    And, yes, if we were doing this from scratch, we might create a federal district or some other structure to represent those citizens. But we are having to deal within the bounds of the constitution. Since the only options under the constitution are statehood, not statehood, or an amendment to create something new, I am in support of statehood because “not statehood” leaves those citizens unrepresented and the amendment route is more hopeless than statehood from a mathematical POV.

    I understand that the odds are long, but it is a practical, doable solution.

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  39. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think that it would be easier to take Republicans seriously if they were at least debating or arguing about Constitutional Amendments. That would include what to do with territories, and maybe a Guam-Mariana state isn’t a bad idea(There is nothing in the constitution banning states on population alone). Maybe merging Guam with Hawaii or California, or maybe granting senators and House districts to all territories.

    But there should be more arguments other than retrocession of DC into Maryland or something like that.

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  40. @Andre Kenji de Sousa: 100%

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