The House Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration held a hearing on “Voting Rights and Election Administration in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Other Territories” on July 28th. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, spoke on behalf of Puerto Rico.
Gonzalez-Colon began by reminding her listeners that “The rights to vote and to be equally represented in the governments that make one’s laws and to have elections conducted fairly are the most fundamental and essential elements of democracy.”
She explained that Puerto Rico has little voice in American democracy. “I represent 3.2 million American citizens, with the same rights as American citizens in the States. But we, and the residents of the other territories, live in jurisdictions that constitutionally cannot have votes in the government that not only makes our national laws but can – and sometimes does – intervene in the local laws.”
This comes about, she explained, because of the Territorial Clause, which gives Congress the power to govern Puerto Rico and all other territories.”Congress can delegate the exercise of self-government to the people of a territory,” she said, “but it still ultimately possesses the power to govern us in all matters and it can take back the self-government it has delegated.”
Congress cannot bind a future Congress
This is an extremely important point when considering voting rights for Puerto Rico, since a current Congress cannot control a future Congress. Congress has the power to make all rules for the territories, but no such decision can be permanent, because Congress can change any previous rules at any time. Whereas States have rights and equality with other States under the Constitution, an unincorporated territory such as Puerto Rico is subject to the decisions of Congress.
“It cannot relinquish the power without making a territory a State or a nation,” said Gonzalez-Colon. “It also constitutionally can – and does – treat us differently than the States: overall worse.”
Gonzalez-Colon emphasized that this reality of the territories is part of the United States Constitution, and cannot be repaired by Congress or the courts.
“Over time, the United States has become more democratic. The problems of democracy and equality for territories, however, cannot be rectified by Congress or the courts because it comes from the plain meaning of the Constitution,” she said. “As individual Americans, we can only obtain Federal representation and equality by moving to a State.”
The Resident Commissioner pointed out that this is the basis of Puerto Rico’s difficult economic circumstances and the related reduction in population on the Island. Only 35% of Puerto Ricans still live in Puerto Rico, she explained, because 5 million have chosen to live in the States, under conditions of full citizenship and equality.
Statehood is the solution
“These realities – and appreciation of and admiration for the United States – are why the remaining people in Puerto Rico – want the territory to become a State,” Gonzalez-Colon said. “We should not have to move to an existing State for democracy or equality.”
Gonzalez-Colon pointed out that statehood had been the logical maturation of territories until the Supreme Court came up with a new category: unincorporated territories. Unincorporated territories can become States, but they can also become independent nations. This was not an option for territories before the concept of unincorporated territories was established in the early 20th century.
“I can report that Puerto Rico does want to become a state of the Union,” Gonzalez-Colon concluded. “It wants equality and democracy within the United States.”