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It’s Time to Let Puerto Rico and Other Island Territories Have a Vote in Congress

In the aftermath of devastating Hurricane Maria, many in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands feel a sense of neglect from the federal government. The president seems more worried about football players and flag etiquette than assisting millions of American citizens in a major natural disaster.

Making things worse, the economically-destructive, protectionist Jones Act continues to jack up the costs of shipping to America’s island territories.

On the other side of the globe, similar sentiments are common in America’s three Pacific island outposts: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. Residents of American Samoa in particular have a serious gripe against Congress.

Due to little more than a long-neglected oversight, American Samoans are the one inhabited U.S. territory whose residents don’t even enjoy full American citizenship.

There is no substantial opposition to American Samoa citizenship – Congress just hasn’t ever bothered to getting around to fixing it. Instead, their passports bear the unique designation of “American national” and an explanation that they are not citizens of the United States.

Territorial citizens deserve a vote in Congress

The United States is not unique in having federal territories like these. Australia, with its Northern Territory, and Canada, with its three Arctic territories, have a similar arrangement. A federal capital district, like the District of Columbia, is even more common around the world.

The United States is unique, however, in not allowing the residents of these territories to be represented in the national legislature that governs them. Australia’s Northern Territory elects two members of their House of Representatives, roughly proportional to their share of the national population. Canada’s three territories each elect a single Member of Parliament to their House of Commons.

America’s system of letting territories be governed directly by Congress made sense in the original context. Territorial status was always envisioned as a temporary, interim arrangement until areas acquired a substantial enough population to merit statehood. Most of America’s states went through this phase, with territorial governments organized by federal law, and then later statehood once the population passed a minimum threshold.

America’s current territories, however, are not bound for statehood, with the possible exception of Puerto Rico. Guam, the Marianas, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are all substantially less populated that the current least-populous state, Wyoming. There is little desire there for full statehood, nor would Congress be likely to grant it.

With populations ranging from around 50,000 to 150,000 each, these islands will never catch up to even Wyoming with its half a million residents. Likewise, Puerto Rico has long struggled to make up its mind about whether or not they even want to be a state. And the District of Columbia is subject to the reasonable objection that the federal capital shouldn’t be made into a state.

Let America’s islands elect Congressmen who can vote

So these territories can’t or won’t be states, but there is also no appreciable movement for independence in any of them. They are happy being part of the United States, and want to continue being Americans. It’s time to give them representation.

The Senate is, of course, the chamber of the states, and each state has an ironclad guarantee of equal representation in that body. The upper chamber, in the Madisonian scheme, represents the states as constituent units of sovereignty.

Even with the change to elected Senators, the fact that Wyoming and California both get two is indicative of their equal status as sovereign states, in spite of wildly disparate populations.

The House, on the other hand, is supposed to be the people’s chamber. There’s no good reason nearly four million Americans, living in American territory, shouldn’t be represented in it.

A constitutional amendment to provide three full voting Representatives for America’s territories – one for the three in the Pacific, one for the two in the Caribbean, and one for the District of Columbia – could pass with little controversy.

The impact on the overall partisan balance in the 435-member chamber would be negligible, but the difference it would make to these territories could be substantial.

It means these islands, as well as voters in the nation’s capital city, would finally have a voice and a vote in the body that governs them more directly, and with more unlimited authority, than it does the voters living in any state. In addition, the island territories could be given a handful of electoral votes to cast in presidential elections, as the District of Columbia already was by means of the 23rd Amendment.

Territorial status as currently laid out by the Constitution, was intended as a temporary measure of limited duration. These islands probably won’t ever become states, but there’s no fair reason they should be forever denied representation in Congress.

They are Americans, and their lives are governed by American laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. They should be allowed to vote for those offices.

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