Before 1961, why couldn't residents of Washington, D.C., vote in presidential elections?
Washington DC is not a US state - it's a district, which means it has no representation in the Congress or in the Electoral College. The lack of Electoral College representation was changed with the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.
There are a couple of things to know:
- The US Constitution, in Article 2, calls for states of the USA to determine, in their own way, how electors were to be selected (as part of the Electoral College). This language was modified in a few Amendments, starting with the 12th, that gives more guidance on the selection process.
(People don't vote directly for President. Instead, people vote for representatives, called Electors, who cast votes for President).
- Washington DC is not a state - it's a district.
The District of Columbia, commonly known as Washington DC, is a bit of a strange place when it comes to government. It's the location of the seat of government for the USA, a country that has always prided itself on the ability of citizens to vote and exercise democracy. And yet, Washington DC has little governing authority of its own.
From its inception in 1802 until 1973, the government of DC was appointed by the President of the USA. In 1973, DC was given the ability to vote for a mayor and a council.
And there is no official representation in the US House of Representatives or in the Senate. There is a representative that speaks for the needs and desires of the District in the House of Representatives, but that person has no voting rights in the House. This despite the fact that the District of Columbia has a larger population than Wyoming and Vermont.
Which brings us to the ability of residents of DC to vote for the President of the US. Again, with the District not being a state, it normally would have no ability to vote for President. However, that changed in 1961 with the passage of 23rd Amendment, when the District was given 3 electoral votes.