The U.S. government established the Dakota Territory in 1861. It consisted of what’s now South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming. As the population grew, there was a campaign to make the territory a state. That happened in 1889. But there was a wrinkle. In order to give the Republican Party more representation in Congress, the territory was divided into two states.
Today, the 1.6 million residents of North and South Dakota have four senators and two representatives. If Dakota had been made a single state, it would be the fourth largest state by area and have two senators and one representative, just like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming.
There are 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, twice as many as live in North and South Dakota, but they have zero senators and zero representatives.
Washington, DC, only has 700,000 residents, but that’s more than Vermont and Wyoming and almost as many as Alaska. Just like Puerto Rico, the Americans who live in Washington, DC, have zero senators and zero representatives.
From The Guardian:
One of the most powerful prosecutions [at the impeachment trial] came from Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, the first delegate from an American territory to hold the position of impeachment manager. Yet Plaskett’s status meant that she was unable to vote for impeachment because she has no vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. The US Virgin Islands has no representation at all in the Senate. Its residents cannot even vote for president.
The anomaly illuminates America’s long unaddressed colonial history that leaves five territories floating in constitutional limbo, their residents – most of them people of color – effectively treated as second-class citizens.
But with the impetus of last summer’s protests against racial injustice, and the election of a Democratic president, one of those territories – Puerto Rico – is aiming to become the 51st state of the union. A parallel effort by Washington, District of Columbia, is also closer than ever to its similar goal.
‘It is incredibly important to take a step back and look at who actually has real representation in democracy,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, an organization pushing for DC statehood. “If you think about all the players that you mentioned, they all have a common thread: [most] are people of color. Does America have a true democracy if so many people of color are standing outside looking in and are not able to fully participate?”
There are five inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Apart from American Samoa, people born in the territories are US citizens and pay federal taxes such as Medicare and social security, though not federal tax on locally sourced income. Each territory sends a delegate to the House who can debate legislation and sit on committees but is not able to actually vote.
Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when it fell under US control as part of the terms that ended the Spanish-American war. In 1917 the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship and in 1952 it became a commonwealth of the US – but still without voting rights in American presidential elections.
Over the past half-century Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its status and last November voted 52%-47% in favor of statehood, a cause boosted by grievance over the federal government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. . . .
George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said: “You have a bunch of unelected individuals making decisions on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico over the desires and ideas and perspectives of the local elected officials, which I think is basically blatant colonialism.
“We had Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes and now Covid and, in all these instances when Puerto Rico needs federal resources, federal support, federal action, we don’t have the capacity to hold elected officials in Washington accountable for what they do because they don’t ever get any votes from Puerto Rico, and that includes the president as well as members of Congress”. . . .
Almost all of Puerto Rico’s residents are Hispanic while nearly half of DC’s are Black. . . .
Its 700,000-plus residents pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state. They gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 but still lack a voting member in the House or a voice in the Senate.
The movement for DC statehood is bigger and better organized than ever before. Last June the House passed a bill that approved it, the first time a chamber of Congress had advanced a DC statehood measure. . . .
Rhodes of 51 for 51 said: “Our most celebrated civil rights leaders were fighting for access to democracy. If you think about John Lewis and Martin Luther King, they were all fighting for access to voting and access to representation and so here in 2021 we’re still fighting in Washington DC for equal representation and a clear chance at participation in democracy” . . .
[After] the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told reporters earlier this month: “If the District of Columbia could operate as a state, [what] any governor can do is to call out the national guard without getting the permission of the federal government. It shouldn’t have to happen that way”. . . .
Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for the grassroots movement Indivisible, said: “It’s an issue of basic fairness”. . . .
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “At the end of the day, you have states from Utah to Montana to others that have gained statehood early on with less question, with less critique than DC and Puerto Rico. It is a fundamental democratic flaw and it reeks of hypocrisy. The only reason why it is a debate or even a question is because of who makes up the majority of both of those places”. . . .
Donna Brazile, a former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “This is about making America a more perfect union. It’s the oldest constitutional democracy in the world and yet some of its citizens do not have all the full voting rights because of where they reside. If we’re going to end racial injustice in America and talk about a new beginning for the country, we can’t sidestep old issues.”
Of course, Congressional Republicans are opposed to statehood for Puerto Rico and DC. The Senate Minority Leader called the idea a “power grab”, simply a way to add Democrats to Congress (see “Dakota Territory, history of”).
Except it’s not that simple at all. Our fellow Americans deserve representation in Congress. That’s the principal justification for adding two more states to the union. It’s not as clear what to do for the 376,000 Americans who live in Guam, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, but Puerto Rico and DC aren’t difficult cases.
Overcoming right-wing opposition (aka voter suppression) by abolishing or seriously reforming the Senate filibuster in order to give Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, full voting rights would give the voters who live there the same power as the other 330 million Americans. It would fix a longstanding problem. It would heal a constitutional wound. As a side effect, it would also add balance to the US Senate, where fifty Republicans today represent 43% of the population and fifty Democrats represent 57%.