By: Samantha Lee Thoms
It has been approximately a century since President, Woodrow Wilson, granted inhabitants of Puerto Rico access to US Citizenship. Although, who can say that they are truly citizens with the current state of affairs. Puerto Rico is as much a part of the U.S. as any other state, to the point where it could be on the brink of statehood. Yet, along with four other inhabited territories (Guam, American Samoa, the North Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) it has yet to be granted the right to participate directly in the U.S. voting process. Instead, citizens of inhabited U.S. territories are allowed to vote for a delegate or; Puerto Rico’s case a Resident Commissioner, both of which act similar to a Congressional Representative. They are able to sit within the House of Representatives. They are able to vote and speak within their congressional committees. On the House floor they are able to introduce bills, resolutions, offer amendments and motions. However, what these government officials cannot do is vote on the House floor, which denies them direct involvement in the representational process.
During the recent 2016 Presidential elections a straw poll was held in a number of U.S. territories, specifically Guam, which had about a 69 percent turnout rate, compared to the 61.8 percent average of the United States. Even though the votes casted did not count towards the election, such a poll proves that these U.S. territories deserve a spot within the election process. Their only circumvention is their ability to vote in the party’s primaries.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court considers its territories to be “not a part” of the U.S., the “constitutionality” of this system continues to be upheld: including the denial of a right to vote in Congress, and participate in the Electoral College for the U.S. President.
This issue is especially prominent in the absentee ballot system, which all U.S. citizens who are living abroad have a right to participate in. Yet, even citizens of the U.S. who were born in the States cannot participate in an absentee ballot if their state doesn’t permit it. A good example of this sort of discrimination was brought to light in the year 2015, when a group of state born Illinois citizens filed a lawsuit challenging these voting limitations as a violation of equal protection. Out of the five inhabited territories that do exist, only the Northern Mariana Islands are free from this limitation. Recently, in September 2017, a letter by the Department of Justice argued that a suitable solution was to remove voting rights in the Northern Mariana Islands, rather than extend them to all five inhabited territories.
Combined with the District of Columbia, the inhabited territories of the United States has a much larger populous than six of the least populated states. Residents of territories that are full time employees that are on the federal government’s payroll must pay the federal income tax. However if they are not, residence only have to file taxes within their own local tax system. While federal income tax payment isn’t required for the majority of bona fide residents, most residents must still pay for other taxes such as Medicare and Social Security.
Puerto Ricans in particular are still, after all, considered U.S. citizens at birth. These bona fide residents can still be conscripted into the U.S. military at any moment. Those within the District of Columbia don’t even have the exclusion from federal income tax payments that is granted to other territories. Meanwhile, American Samoa is currently the only U.S. territory where bona fide residents are eligible for Possession Exclusion.
In 2017 a referendum was held with the goal for Puerto Rico to self-determine their territory’s future, of which a majority of residents are seeking statehood. The four previous attempts failed in 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012. The referendum made the request to the federal government for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, with full awareness of the duties and rights that becoming a state would include and provide. There is a distinct desire within the Puerto Rican populous for a status that should have been granted to the territory the moment its residents were made citizens at birth. The El Nuevo Día Poll that was hosted in the month of May resulted in an overwhelming 57 percent in favor of Puerto Rican statehood, while only 17 percent supported its current U.S. territory status. This referendum has a number of supporters within the States, including support from representatives in Florida, New York, Alaska, and Wisconsin. The 2016 platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties supported Puerto Rican statehood; with President Trump among a number of other Republican party members who have claimed support. As of June 11, 2017 the referendum is still pending review by the Department of Justice.