Voting Rights for Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands
In thinking about the United States response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, I began to wonder why they cannot vote in Presidential elections, and why their representatives cannot vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate. These policies appear to be vestiges of our short imperial quest to acquire colonies during the late 19th and early 20th century, keeping up with the Europeans.
How different would be the federal government’s response if the islands’ residents could vote? How different the legislative outcomes in the House and Senate would be if they could vote? The French give voting rights to the residents of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Tahiti and St Pierre and Miquelon in elections for their National Assembly and for President of France. Why should not the United States do the same?
The US Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark at the time of the First World War because we feared that the Germans would establish naval and submarine operations there. Their residents, about 100,000, are U.S. citizens. Three fourths of the island residents are of Afro-Caribbean descent.
Some local residents are descended from African slaves who originally worked the local plantations; others moved there from neighboring islands or the US mainland. After several revolts during the 18th and 19th century, slavery was finally abolished in the Virgin Islands by the Danish Government in 1848. The local economy has been hard hit by the closure of a large oil refinery in Saint Croix and the local government has a large debt.
Most local jobs are in tourism. Private sector jobs made up 71 percent of the total workforce and the average salary was $34,000. About 30% of the population has incomes below the poverty line.
I spent several months there in the early 80’s; I wondered about the open sewage that backed up into the boatyard where I was working several times a day during high tides. I asked if they had contacted the government about fixing the sewage flow since it was a pretty serious health hazard. They had multiple times, and the federal government had simply not responded. I later learned that the elected US VI representative could attend but not vote in Congress – a non-voting representative.
US VI are classified as a territory, not a state; therefore the US citizens who live there cannot elect voting representatives in the US government who govern their present and future. However, once they move to mainland they can vote in their new state of residence. So Tim Duncan, for example, can vote for President while he resides in San Antonio, but not if he returns to the Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico is 40 miles west of the US Virgin Islands, but very different because of its Spanish heritage. The US acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in the late 19th Century as part of the settlement of the Spanish-American War. It. Unlike Cuba, Puerto Rico was not granted independence, but rather became a US territory, eventually in 1950 the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico despite many efforts by local political leaders to gain independence.
It has a diverse population of 3.4 million, about 3/4ths are Hispanic and 12% are of African American descent. In 2013, the per capita income was $24,000. While it is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest American state, its per capita income ranks higher than most of the rest of Latin America. Puerto Rico has a very high cost of living due to high energy and housing costs and the effects of the Jones Act which makes the cost of shipping goods to Puerto Rico very expensive.
Puerto Rico has been in a long recession due in substantial part to the 2006 repeal of its favored tax status for manufacturing. It had been making fast economic progress before the federal government pulled the rug out from under its booming manufacturing economy by repealing its tax advantages.
Puerto Rico began a practice of issuing bonds to balance its budget. Like the Virgin Islands, it now has a very heavy debt load -- $70 billion or 70% of GDP. Unlike the Virgins, Puerto Ricao has a rapidly declining and aging population because its young citizens are moving to the US mainland for better economic opportunities.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but those living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in US Presidential elections, and their congressional representative has non-voting status. Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states can vote and play a central role in communities like New York and Boston. NLCS Dodger hero Enrique Hernandez could vote for President from his residence in California, but could not vote for President from his home in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has had multiple referenda to decide the status quo as a territorial Commonwealth, seeking independence, or statehood. Early in the 20th Century continuing until at least 1950, there was a strong movement for independence; it was suppressed at times with violence and killing. Island sentiment has changed drastically since and the debate is more commonly between seeking statehood as the 51st state or continuing as a Commonwealth although there is a still a third party seeking independence. In the 2017 referendum, 97% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, but less than a quarter of the eligible voters participated by casting their ballots and two parties urged an electoral boycott.
Puerto Rico is in desperate need for electricity, water, medicine and food as a result of Hurricane Maria. The electrical grid is owned by a local public monopoly; it is high-priced, outdated and in need of repairs; over 80% of island residents have no electricity due to the hurricane, now more than a month ago. More than a third have no access to clean water and are drinking from local streams and hazardous waste sites. Puerto Rico is a major manufacturer of prescription drugs for the US and the global economy, yet the relief efforts cannot medicines to the island’s elderly and disabled in urgent need, and too many are dying preventable deaths.
Washington DC: Like the residents of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the 680,000 residents of Washington DC have no vote in the House or the Senate, but rather a non-voting representative. This anomaly dates back to the days of Jefferson and Hamilton and the compromise that created DC out of a portion of Maryland and Virginia. Under the 23rd amendment, the DC electorate has three votes in Presidential elections. The population is 48% African American. DC’s GDP per capita is the highest in the nation, three times as high as second ranked Massachusetts; yet nearly one in five DC residents have incomes below the poverty line. Due to the disproportionate presence and exempt nature of the federal government, the District has limited ability to raise revenues through the sales and property taxes. There have been repeated and as yet unsuccessful efforts to secure statehood and voting rights in Congress for the residents of DC.
Guam: About 160,000 US citizens live on the island of Guam, another trust territory ceded by Spain along with the Philippines and Puerto Rico to the US after the Spanish American War. Unlike Puerto Rico, they are not a Commonwealth, but rather have territorial status with the US. There are major US military bases for the Navy, Air Force and Marines on Guam.
Guam was invaded and occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and not liberated until 1944. It has been recently threatened with nuclear attack by North Korea.
Residents of Guam have been debating becoming a Commonwealth like Puerto Rico, independence, free association status like many neighboring Pacific Islands or statehood as a part of Hawaii. Statehood as part of Hawaii would give the island a vote in Congress and a right to vote in Presidential elections, rights that the islanders now lack. Native Chamorros are 37% of the island’s population, and Filipino Islanders are 30%.
The future: Why not negotiate statehood for Puerto Rico and for Washington DC? Why not allow Guam to join Hawaii as a state or the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to join as a state? Currently these US citizens pay US taxes and have no voting representation in Congress. They pay federal income taxes, which revert to their own territories for self-governance. They pay Social Security taxes and qualify for Social Security and Medicare. They can move to any of the 50 states and vote, but they cannot vote for President if they live in their own communities. These are colonial vestiges that should be abolished; it’s not that difficult; France already does it.
It is possible that those who hold the power in Washington would fear its dilution by adding more votes and voters. It is possible that some of the island territories might prefer independence to statehood. Why not begin the process by allowing for binding referendums in the territories and the beginning of status negotiations?
DC’s status is a more complex challenge and it might require a constitutional amendment to become a state. Would it be possible to give DC residents a vote in the House for starters? They have a larger population than several states, but it is moving to the mainland and the remaining population is aging. Puerto Rico’s challenges in moving towards statehood are partly financial as the island is heavily in debt and mired in a decade long recession. Maybe the starting point for Puerto Rico is to restore its favored tax status and allow it to resume its economic growth. Maybe it should be exempt from the Jones Act so its cost of living can be reduced. Guam is too small to become a state, but could benefit by joining Hawaii.