D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories: An Explainer

Explainers: Statehood Voting Rights
D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories - Democracy Explainer

Nearly five million people — residents of Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the other U.S. territories — are taxpaying U.S. citizens that have fundamentally different voting rights and representation in government than residents of the 50 states.

What are the U.S. territories?

Similar to states, territories of the United States are sub-national administrative divisions overseen by the U.S. government. The United States has held territories throughout its history. In fact, many current states started off as territories before they were granted statehood. Hawaii and Alaska were the last two territories to become states — both in 1959. Currently, the United States occupies sixteen territories, five of which — Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — have permanent inhabitants who are U.S. citizens..

How are the citizens of the territories represented in government?

All five inhabited territories have government structures similar to those of the states, with their own executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Those who live in the territories are U.S. citizens, pay some federal taxes, and can travel freely within the United States. Despite contributing billions in taxes to the federal government, they do not have meaningful representation like U.S. citizens in the 50 states.

At the U.S. federal level, each territory elects a non-voting member in the House of Representatives, but they do not have any representation in the Senate. While citizens in these territories do vote in presidential primaries, they do not have representation in the Electoral College, rendering their vote more symbolic than consequential.

This unequal status provided to the people of the U.S. territories — often characterized as taxation without representation — has been criticized by many as a colonial relationship in a postcolonial world.

How are citizens of Washington, D.C. represented in government?

While Washington, D.C. has more autonomy than the U.S. territories, its citizens still do not have the representation enjoyed by those who live in one of the 50 states.

The District is home to more than 712,000 people. Its citizens pay federal income tax and have at least some representation in the Electoral College thanks to the 23rd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted D.C. the same number of electoral votes as the least populous state; however, the population of D.C. is greater than two states — Vermont and Wyoming. Like each of the territories, Washington D.C has a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and does not have Senators.

Do the residents of D.C. and the territories want statehood?

Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico often lead the calls for statehood conversation because they have larger populations than the smaller territories. Ongoing debates about statehood date back to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico’s respective beginnings with the U.S. Proponents cite the Revolutionary War slogan “taxation without representation” as a rallying cry as people of the District of Columbia. and the U.S. territories are American citizens who are taxed without representation in Congress.

While citizens of all territories pay many federal taxes, D.C. is the only territory where people pay federal income taxes. In fact, residents of Washington D.C. pay the highest per-capita federal income tax rate in the nation, yet have no voice in how their tax dollars are allocated. Many Puerto Rican leaders and citizens have expressed a desire to start paying federal income taxes in exchange for statehood.

There is a growing consensus among territorial residents that statehood would be a positive and necessary change, In 2016, D.C. voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure in favor of statehood. In Puerto Rico, a nonbinding referendum in November of 2020 resulted in 52 percent of Puerto Ricans voting in favor of statehood.

What is the process to become a state?

The Admissions Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to admit new states to the Union. Every state not included in the original 13 colonies was added by Congress using this power. A bill granting statehood to a prospective state would have to pass in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and be signed into law by the President in order for that territory to be granted statehood.

Has this been done before?

A majority of the current states started out as territories. Just over 60 years ago, Hawaii and Alaska were granted statehood in 1959. Our institutions were updated to accommodate two new states, and, now, the federal government still has the power to grant equal representation to U.S. citizens living in D.C. and the territories.

What would statehood mean for electoral representation in D.C. and the territories?

If D.C. or any of the U.S. territories were to be granted statehood, our institutions would have to be updated to provide representation to these citizens.

In Congress, the Senate would expand to accommodate two Senators from each of the new states. A 1929 law set the number of seats in the House of Representatives to 435 voting members, with representation divided amongst the states based on population. Since this law is still in place, Congress would have to either 1) implement a new law increasing the number of voting members of the House of Representatives or 2) reassign the existing number of districts to accommodate new states.

The Electoral College would also change. States are alloted electoral votes based on how many voting members from their state are in Congress. Therefore, new states would be alloted Electoral College votes based on the number of Representatives plus the two Senators from their state. This would — for the first time — give territorial citizens a meaningful voice in Congress and in presidential elections.

Why are we talking about D.C. statehood now?

While Members of Congress have introduced D.C. statehood bills for decades, recent events have thrust the statehood debate to the forefront. On January 6, 2021, President Trump incited a riot at the U.S. Capitol and initially refused to activate the D.C. National Guard to secure the Capitol.

While state Governors have the power to mobilize their National Guard units within their state, the D.C. Mayor — D.C.’s equivalent of a Governor — cannot mobilize the National Guard in the District without federal government approval. The handling of the Capitol riots has led to renewed calls for D.C. statehood.

Now, just months after a summer in which D.C. leaders criticized the heavy presence of federal law enforcement in the District in the face of largely-peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, there is a clear focus on the arguments that the District should have control over its own public safety and that residents deserve a say in what happens in their community.

Why are we talking about statehood for Puerto Rico now?

Like D.C., recent disasters and controversies have centered the statehood conversation on the need for autonomy for Puerto Rico.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and the federal government response was slow and grossly inefficient. More than three years later, many U.S. citizens remain without electricity despite paying billions in taxes to the U.S. government. This federal government failure initiated serious conversations about granting statehood or independence to Puerto Rico for safety purposes both on and off the island.

The basic argument for statehood

A core principle of American democracy is the right to representation by the people and for the people. For more than 240 years, Americans have fought to expand the definition of “the people” — securing citizenship and voting rights for women, Black and Indigenous Americans, people of Asian and Latinx descent. Residents of DC, Puerto Rico, and other territories should be next. As the debate over statehood continues and intensifies, it’s important that we center the voices of those impacted by their second-class citizen status: the residents of D.C., Puerto Rico, and the other U.S. territories.

Published November 24, 2021