Partial Citizenship: A History of Disenfranchisement in US Territories

In September 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by the strongest storm it had seen in 80 years when Hurricane Maria cut a path of total devastation directly across the small island. Since then, the U.S. territory has been weathering another disaster: an indefensible lack of adequate support from the federal government that controls it.

The discrepancies in the levels of aid to Puerto Rico, as compared to Texas and Florida (both also hit by hurricanes last September), are alarming. About 100 days after the deluge of hurricanes in September, FEMA reported that over $10 billion in federal and state assistance had been available to storm victims in Texas, and about $2.5 billion to Floridians. Puerto Ricans had received about $1 billion. Now, six months post-hurricane, an estimated 100,000 Puerto Ricans still lack electricity; the island holds the record for the longest blackout in U.S. history.

It’s hard to imagine millions of Floridians or Texans left in the dark for months on end. As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin writes, “The crisis in Puerto Rico is a case study of what happens when people with little political capital need the help of their government.”

To better understand the current situation in Puerto Rico, it is critical to look back at Puerto Rico’s historical relationship with the mainland U.S., especially when it comes to the territory’s voting power.

Puerto Rico sits in the northeast Caribbean, about 1,000 miles from Florida coasts. The island has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines to the United States following the Spanish-American War. Today, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. federal government is similar in some ways to that between state and federal governments. Puerto Rico has its own constitution and a local government controlling internal affairs, but federal laws and policies ultimately take precedent. But territorial status means that Puerto Ricans don’t vote for presidents and don’t have a voting representative in Congress. A recent poll found that about half of Americans don’t even realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens — and considering the territory’s lack of political voice in Washington, the misconception may be understandable.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in this political status. The United States controls 5 inhabited territories which do not get a vote in presidential elections and which, along with the nation’s capital, are not represented by a voting member of Congress. The convoluted web of laws governing territories seems to have set them up for disaster; many argue that a lack of clear constitutional provisions for territories and their residents leaves territories vulnerable to mismanagement, neglect, and exploitation. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Roselló sums it up: “Because we don’t have political power, because we don’t have representatives, senators, no vote for president, we are treated as an afterthought. When it is time to vote, there is not accountability.”

The U.S. came into control of its current 16 territories (of which only five are permanently inhabited) over decades, variously through purchase, post-war treaty, and, incredibly, the pursuit of bird guano. The five inhabited territories are Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and American Samoa; additionally, the District of Columbia is considered a federal district, not a state of its own. The residents of territories and D.C. are considered U.S. citizens (or, in the case of American Samoans, “non-citizen U.S. nationals”); they’re governed locally with elected governors, mayors, and councils, but ultimately they’re subject to federal law and administrative policy — much like any of the 50 states. But unlike in the states, the residents of territories and the District have virtually no influence in the halls of federal power.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution provides that “the House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen…by the People of the several States”. But, the 5 inhabited territories are just that: territories — not states. Instead of a voting Member, Puerto Rico has sent a non-voting “resident commissioner” to Congress since 1901, and Congress created similar non-voting delegate roles for other territories and Washington, DC beginning in 1970. These delegates are mostly treated like other members of Congress — except that they are not actually allowed to vote on any legislation on the House floor. And, even these stunted roles could be changed by simply changing the House rules. A 2015 Congressional Research Service report describes that the committee voting rights of delegates have “changed several times as majority party control of the House has changed”, even within the past decade. Any power that delegates have is derived from Congress, not from the Constitution, leaving them on pretty unstable ground.

Equally unstable is the meaning of citizenship itself for territorial residents. Although the residents of territories are considered U.S. citizens, a series of 1901 Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases found that these citizens should only “partially” enjoy the rights and protections of the U.S. Constitution, since “Anglo-Saxon principles” wouldn’t apply to the “alien races” living there. These racist rulings left it up to Congress or later court cases to decide which parts of the Constitution apply to territories. A later Supreme Court decision in 1922, citing the Insular Cases, found that U.S. citizens who lived in Puerto Rico weren’t guaranteed the constitutional right to a criminal trial by jury. Today, territories see huge disparities in federal funding for programs like Medicare and Medicaid compared to those programs in the states; this is one example of the injustices that can be traced back to the Insular Cases. This century-old racist case law set up today’s reality where territorial residents can’t rely on basic Constitutional rights or fair treatment from their own federal government.

Citizens living in territories are left out of a pretty big decision-making process every four years: presidential elections. Washington, DC gets 3 electoral votes in presidential elections; territories don’t have any electoral votes in general elections, but they do send delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions during the primary process. Despite the fact that their votes don’t count in the general election, the residents of Guam have held a general election straw poll during November in election years since 1980. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton won 71% of Guam straw poll votes.

What comes next for U.S. territories? Debates about territorial political status center around three possible options: 1) continuing the status quo, 2) campaigning for statehood, or 3) pursuing independence. Any of these options carries its own set of promises — but also complicated questions. Would the small island territories thrive economically as independent nations? How would these new countries relate to the U.S. or the U.N.? How might the United States government, electoral processes, and even flag design change if new states were admitted to the union?

Debates rage on, but the residents of territories and D.C. have hardly been paralyzed in the meantime. Non-voting Congressional delegates from territories and from D.C. have long called for a more meaningful role in Congress. For years, local campaigns have pushed for statehood for the District of Columbia; a November 2016 referendum calling for statehood was supported by 78% of D.C. voters, and a bill has been introduced in Congress that would admit the District as a new U.S. state. D.C. statehood was even included in the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform. Since 2011, the Guam Commission on Decolonization has aimed to educate voters in Guam about possible political status options. In 2012, the people of Puerto Rico sent a concurrent resolution to Congress “requesting…the conclusion of the island’s current territorial status”, after 61% of voters favored statehood as an alternative to the current status. And just in the last few weeks, Puerto Rican statehood advocates have stepped up their game in the wake of underwhelming federal response to last year’s hurricanes, travelling to Washington to speak in Congress and holding a town hall in Florida, where tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved since Hurricane Maria. “What we want to impress upon Congress and, quite frankly, the whole nation is that Puerto Ricans want a change from their second-class status that … has been exposed in the path of Hurricane Maria,” said Gov. Rosselló of Puerto Rico.

The relationships between the five inhabited U.S. territories, Washington, D.C., and the federal government controlling them all, have a strained and complicated history. Questions about where to go from here are often thorny and hotly debated. But asking these questions is vitally important — not just for residents of territories and the District, but also and especially for mainland U.S. citizens and our leaders. The health of our democracy depends on asking these questions of ourselves and earnestly striving for good answers.

To learn about or support statehood efforts in Washington, D.C., join grassroots efforts like the New Columbia Statehood Commission. Groups like the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association and the New Progressive Party advocate Puerto Rican statehood; the Puerto Rico Independence Party advocates independence. Three task forces from the Guam Commission on Decolonization educate residents on the potentials of free association, statehood, and independence for Guam, respectively. Residents of the 50 incorporated U.S. states can also urge their representatives and senators to support statehood for territories, and encourage members of Congress to expand the roles of non-voting delegates by amending House Rules.

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