Voting rights have long been an issue in the United States. It has been a lengthy (often uphill), battle throughout the past couple of centuries to give all people in the country the right to vote. However, our method of giving a voice to all is still lacking in several areas; certain voter ID laws are used to disenfranchise voters and gerrymandering is used to essentially rig elections for politicians who draw the districts. Today, however, I would like to call attention specifically to those living in U.S. territories as full citizens of our nation who, nonetheless, lack both particular voting rights and adequate representation in Congress.
I refer to the U.S. citizens of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the North Mariana Islands. All told, over 4 million residents between these territories have limited voting rights in federal elections, inadequate representation in Congress, or both. Residents of D.C. can vote in presidential elections, while residents of the other territories cannot. In terms of Congressional representation, all of these territories get one member in the House of Representatives that can introduce legislation, but not vote. This is insane! Puerto Rico, for example, has more residents than 21 states at 3.3 million. Their population is right under Connecticut, so by mathematical rights they should have five voting members in the House and two Senators. The people living there are U.S. citizens and they deserve adequate representation.
Opponents of granting equal rights to their fellow Americans often point out that those living in territories (excluding D.C.) do not pay a federal income tax. While this is true, residents do in fact pay into Social Security and Medicare. Those that live in D.C. actually pay full federal taxes that are higher per capita than all 50 states. Additionally, there are unorthodox tax policies that limit the number of people who work in DC but live outside of the district from contributing portions of their state taxes to D.C.—resulting in large revenue losses.
Of course, not paying exactly the same amount of taxes as people in states is a pretty weak justification for limiting representation to one non-voting person and no say in who the president is. They’re still American citizens and the decisions made by the government can have a great deal of an impact on them.
Take the handling of the Hurricane Maria by the Trump Administration. It was not the most effective response and as of the end of January there were still hundreds of thousands in Puerto Rico without power. Some of this has to do with the havoc the storm wrought upon the electric grid and logistical reasons, but there was some degree of incompetency as well. A power company with just two employees was awarded a $300 million contract to restore power to the island. It just so happens that the company was based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Despite the fact that the decision to hire this company was massively stupid, Puerto Ricans have limited power to affect change or pressure on government leaders. Trump won’t be hurt by the mishandling of this disaster unless people in the mainland decide it’s important and decide to vote based on the issue. Puerto Ricans themselves can’t do much more than ask their representative to make an impassioned speech on the floor of the House.
Something has to change. The decisions made by the government have too much of an impact on the lives of everyone in U.S. states and territories for some citizens to have less of a voice because of where they live. Maybe some of the territories could become states, with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico being the most obvious candidates. Otherwise, territories should be assigned voting members in both chambers of Congress based on their population. It might be a stretch to say that the smaller territories should get two Senators, so maybe one Senator and one Representative (and therefore two Electoral votes) would be a good compromise for less populous locations. Regardless of what decision gets reached, it is clear that the status quo of how we treat our fellow Americans is sorely lacking. Until we start a serious discussion over what to do, we cannot rightly call ourselves a truly democratic nation.
Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.