By Adam Sanders.
It is often not something we think about, but the United States still has colonies in the 21st century (although we call them territories, since it sounds much nicer). But one might think that in the political sphere they are irrelevant. Constitutionally, they are, but they have the potential to be quite important, especially in the present day when every vote counts. One must remember, the collective population of the U.S. territories is just short of four million people. Twenty U.S. states do not have populations that high. Yet, the territories are consistently neglected, especially when in comes time to national elections. This disproportionate lack of political power compared to the territories’ collective population warrants a look at why this is the case. To begin with, one must understand broadly how political life is structured in the territories (which are not a monolithic group, just to be clear).
The largest and most populous territory is obviously Puerto Rico. Like the U.S. States they have their own local government and elections. Specifically, Puerto Rico has a governor that is popularly elected every four years, along with an assembly and a Senate. Additionally, Puerto Rico has its own constitution, just like the States. The key difference between Puerto Rico and the States. Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections (although they can participate in the primaries, strangely enough). Furthermore, while Puerto Rico does elect delegates to Congress, they are not permitted to vote. Of course, unless one lives in Puerto Rico or one of the other territories, one may still not understand why it is important that these political limitations on the federal level are important. But there are two reasons why they are important. One reason lauds Puerto Rico’s political potential, and the other is a cautionary tale as to what happens when a people cannot or do not vote.
The first reason why Puerto Rico’s limitations are important is that if it were a state, it would boast four electoral votes. To be sure, that may not sound like much, but it is more than both West Virginia and Vermont, and those two get to vote in Congress and for President. If Puerto Rico were granted status as a U.S. state, it would be more than competitive with the smaller states in the House, and size does not matter one bit in the Senate. In 2020, 52% of Puerto Rico voted to become a state. Of course, that begs the question of when the process of statehood would begin. Unfortunately, that process will not begin because the referendum in 2020 was symbolic only, as ultimately Congress has the final say on what territories are admitted into the Union.
This leads into the second reason why understanding Puerto Rico’s lack of political power is important, the cautionary tale. Namely, Puerto Rico must basically complain until it is blue in the face to get the federal government to pay any attention to it. The Trump Administration’s negligent treatment of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria was a particularly appalling episode, but that failure was just the largest example of a trend. In recent years, several federal laws and regulations helping Puerto Rico have begun lapsing or expiring, and the island has not had the political muscle to argue on its behalf in Washington. This representative stunting (along with inefficiencies and missteps on the island’s side) has led to Puerto Rico struggling with major poverty and government debt. The Puerto Rican government naturally does what it can, and governors can come and go, but ultimately there is a limit to what the island can accomplish with its own resources.
As mentioned earlier, Congress could grant the island permission to join the Union and become a U.S. state. But this is highly unlikely to happen, and thus the question arises as to why that is. The answer lies in politics. Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, Catholic, and Hispanic. On the ground, this translates into a majorly Democratic population. Thus, Puerto Rico finds itself in the same situation as Washington, D.C. in its statehood efforts. Because Puerto Rico would be non-competitive in federal elections, the opposing side will not permit the required 2/3ds vote needed to admit it into the Union. As a result, Puerto Rico suffers because if its potential to politically punch above its weight.
While Puerto Rico is the most notable U.S. territory, the territories in general also have federal influence beyond voting. While territorial house delegates may not vote on the full house floor, they are not merely observers. Territorial delegates are permitted to vote on House committees and subcommittees, and they are permitted to submit legislative proposals to the full House (which they themselves cannot vote on). While formal legislation in general seems to be declining in its success rate on the federal level, it is still worth paying attention to what comes out of the territories. While much of it may understandably be based on issues involving territories or even just the territory whose delegate proposed the legislation, there is nothing saying this will always be the case. Major national security, foreign policy, and trade legislation on the national level has major effect on the territories. As a result, the territories’ ideas may have impact on major federal policy, even without territorial voting rights.
In conclusion, the territories are frequently neglected, often mismanaged, and have a hard time competing with U.S. states on an equal footing as it is, and a lack of federal voting rights makes the situation that much worse. As a result, domestic political life in the territories is often lively and dynamic. Furthermore, what the territories cannot accomplish on full House votes, they work to influence in the committees and legislative proposals. But these people, nearly four million are Americans too. Their struggles, issues, and voices should not be ignored in the U.S. political scene.
 “Puerto Rico Status Referendum”, elecciones2020.ceepur.org, (November 2020) https://elecciones2020.ceepur.org/Noche_del_Evento_92/index.html#en/default/PLEBISCITO_Resumen.xml
 Rafael Torrcech San Inocencio, “La Autosuficiencia Alimentaria”, El Neuvo Dia (accessed March 5, 2021). https://web.archive.org/web/20131106153646/http://www.elnuevodia.com/voz-titulo-1137663.html
 “United States Congressional Non-Voting Members”, Ballotpedia (accessed March 5, 2021 2021). https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_congressional_non-voting_members