The lack of voting rights for the people living in U.S. territories is a topic that is sorely underrepresented in political discourse. The U.S. has five territories— Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands— each with little to no representation. Puerto Rico is by far the most populated U.S. territory and has the least amount of representation in Congress, so let’s go into detail.
Puerto Ricans are granted birthright U.S. citizenship and pay the vast majority of the taxes that people on the mainland do. These federal taxes include payroll taxes, gift taxes, social security taxes, business taxes, and estate taxes. The exception is that Puerto Ricans do not pay a federal income tax, however, they do pay an income tax imposed by the Puerto Rican government. While Puerto Ricans may be citizens and pay taxes, they are unable to vote in any federal elections. This is exceptionally troubling, but the root of the problem runs even deeper, as Puerto Ricans are unable to elect representatives to Congress.
“Territory” is essentially a modern day synonym for “colony”. The U.S’ treatment of Puerto Ricans and its other territories is the reason Americans started the Revolutionary War in the first place. Taxation without representation was deemed so abusive, people were willing to give their lives to be free of it. I’m not implying that the people of Puerto Rico and other territories are going to or should revolt, but any grudge they hold against the federal government is justified. The current method of governing territories is wildly hypocritical and, quite frankly, un-American.
Home to over 3.2 million people, Puerto Rico is the most populous of the U.S. territories. Upon beginning my research, I initially thought that territories were kept subjugated because politicians wanted to reduce the risk that they might vote “unfavorably”. However, 42% of Puerto Ricans describe themselves as moderate, 21.7% as liberal, and 20.7% as conservative.
Current politicians have virtually no valid reason for not giving Puerto Ricans representation in Congress— doing so is unlikely to politically skew election results in any specific way. Additionally, it may be positive to have a more moderate demographic participating in the U.S.’ deeply divided politics. It could potentially break ties in Congress and keep gridlocks at bay. The key to getting a stubborn Congress to function again could be including moderate Puerto Rico and the other territories in the decision making process.
Politics and strategy aside, it is embarrassing for the U.S. to tax territories without giving them the right to be represented in Congress. An argument against making territories states is their smaller population— the claim is that it doesn’t make sense to go through the process for something insignificant. However, Rhode Island is a state and Puerto Rico’s population is three times that of Rhode Island’s. Population size is no excuse for Puerto Rico to remain a territory.
It is concerning that while most Americans are violently arguing over hot button topics, the rights of people living in U.S. territories are being ignored completely. In 2017, the territory asked its people via plebiscite vote if they were in favor of becoming the 51st U.S. state. Of nearly half a million votes, 97% of Puerto Ricans were in favor of becoming a state. That is an overwhelming show of support to put it lightly, and their voices are being ignored completely. This is deeply troubling for a nation that prides itself so deeply on its democratic values. Until the territory is either made a state or no longer severely neglected, Puerto Rico will remain underrepresented and exploited.