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Why don’t more than 5 million Americans have proper congressional representation?

by Julia Marin Hellwege



In the United States, today, over 5 million Americans don’t have access to proper congressional representation either as Native Americans living on sovereign land or as residents of U.S. territories with congressional delegates but limited voting rights. In part one of this two-part series, I discussed the Cherokee Nation’s recent announcement to request Congress to uphold an 1835 provision providing the nation with a congressional delegate. I used this occasion as an opportunity to discuss the limited representation of Native American interests and the complex dual citizenship status of millions of Native Americans. In this second part of the series, I discuss delegational representation, which is the current form of congressional representation for U.S. territories. I examine how this form of representation is limited and the racial structures for which it has been justified as well as acknowledging both the substantive and symbolic reasons why delegational representation would be a major step for Native American nations.


Currently, there are five delegates and one resident commissioner in Congress who serve as “non-voting members of the House.” These delegates represent the approximately four million American citizens and U.S. nationals who do not have congressional representation nor full voting rights. This includes citizens living in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Marianas, Washington D.C., and nationals in American Samoa. The role of delegates has varied over time, including whether they can participate in debates over committee appointment, speaking time, and committee voting. Bottom line is that they are not members of the House and consequently cannot vote on the House floor, they have no representation in the Senate, and accordingly, no electoral college vote in presidential elections (aside from Washington D.C.). If Congress fulfills the Cherokee request, this is what their congressional representation would look like: an opportunity for a voice, but not a vote. Of course, the Cherokee, unlike the Territories, do have an opportunity to vote in all elections as fully recognized dual citizens.


Linking Congressional Representation to Voting Rights

Native Americans, as individuals, have greater opportunities for representation than the Territories, but the Territories have greater, albeit limited, representation as territories. While the goal ought to be full representation and political participation rights for both the community and the individual, we are now in a position where Natives and territorial citizens have opposite legal limitations to representation. This is in part because the U.S. representational system is, in part, built around the concept of “states’ rights” (not territories or tribal nations), and in part due to systemic racism creating structural barriers for “minority-minority” territories to become states and for individuals in those communities to access voting rights to enact change in the system that marginalizes them. This representational system has produced a society where millions of people, most of them citizens, are barred from a congressional representative.


These unrepresented citizens include the over 3 million Puerto Rican citizens, who are currently represented by Resident Commissioner (a 4-year non-voting delegate) Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR), notably the first female to hold the position. In June 2018, she filed a bill seeking Puerto Rican statehood, but it was never acted on. There have been five referenda on the question, with most indicating disapproval of the current territorial status. The preferred solution among Puerto Ricans has varied over time, although most referenda results indicate a preference for statehood.


They also include the approximately 326,000 citizens living on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Northern Mariana islands. They are represented by Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Michael San Nicolas (D-Guam), and Gregorio Sablan (D-NMI) respectively. Plaskett, who has served in the House as a delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2015, has become a particularly strong voice for equal voting rights in the territories. Notably, in 2017, Plaskett interrupted an official vote to “ask parliamentary inquiry as to why not at this time at this juncture in the United States that the territories do not have a voice on this floor?”


Residents of American Samoa face yet another hurdle to full representation, citizenship. Long-term delegate Eni Faleomavaega has both sponsored legislation to facilitate naturalization requirements for American Samoans, as well as called for their independence, noting the precarious status of the islander residents. Today, American Samoans are represented by delegate Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS), or Amua Amata as she’s commonly known, whose House biography specifically states that she is active on issues relating not only to the Territories but also to “the 562 Federally recognized Indian Tribes in the United States” noting the similarly situated political statuses of these various nations.


How is this lack of representation justified?

There are two primary explanations for the lack of representation in the territories, the lack of collection of federal taxes and the Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell (1901), known as the “Insular Cases.”


As noted earlier, much of the representational marginalization stems from systemic racism. In 1901, the “Insular Cases” noted that the territories were “belonging to, but not part of, the United States” and that these territories were inhabited by “alien races” incapable of adapting to Anglo-Saxon political culture, in much the same way that the term (or at the least the concept of)“savage” has been used to denote and demean Native Americans. This notion persists despite the many other areas of civil rights progress since then. As recently as 2012, American Samoans sued the U.S. Government (Leneuoti Fiafia Tuaua v US 2012) for citizenship rights, but a motion to dismiss was passed on the very basis of the racist Insular Cases.


In 2015, late night show host, John Oliver, featured the issue of territorial voting rights on his television show. His feature focused on the high number of veterans who come from the territories. For example, one of every eight citizens in Guam was a veteran, according to a report in 2014. Similarly, both American Samoa and Northern Marianas boast extraordinarily high numbers of veterans among their residents. Despite lacking the right to vote for president, Guam citizens regularly participate in a straw poll, which regularly has a higher turnout than the national turnout among registered voters.


There are many complicated reasons for congressional inaction in providing appropriate representation for the approximately five million people who live in either the Territories or one of the hundreds of tribes across the United States. Although the often-cited simplest explanation boils down to the territorial “privilege” of not paying federal taxes (not including D.C.), there is no denying the structural racism in the courts’ upholding of the Insular cases or inaction on congressional representation warranted in the Treaty of Echota (and similar agreements establishing many of today’s Native reservations).


There is a partisan reason as well. As long as US democracy has existed, it has carefully and often artificially created the semblance of partisan balance. Just as the Missouri Compromise ensured equal representation of slave states and free states, so too would current members carefully consider which territories to accept as states. Despite the partisan diversity among Native Americans and several of the Territories, politicians assume that these citizens would create a left-leaning imbalance, and so Congress actively chooses to take no action on establishing representation for five million U.S. citizens and nationals.


There are many opportunities for improvements in our current representational system. Just as with Native Americans, territorial citizens should be granted full voting rights, but we also need to ensure that native tribes and territories have opportunities for representation as states do. We cannot allow calls for statehood or delegational representation to go unanswered. Although not full representation, a congressional delegate for the Cherokee would do much to improve the lack of representation for the Cherokee in particular and for Native Americans in general. The symbolism of a congressional delegate for a population that has been subject to genocide and neglect also cannot be understated. Having the U.S. government make good on a nearly two-hundred-year-old treaty could help heal wounds. And for the Territories, a Cherokee congressional delegate could mean one more voice speaking on issues of voting rights and full congressional representation.

Julia Marin Hellwege is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota in the Department of Political Science. She is also affiliated faculty with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 2016. Her MA (2011) and BA (2009) are also in Political Science from UNM and Colorado Mesa University.

Marin Hellwege specializes in the interaction between political institutions and identity, particularly as related to the political representation of women and other marginalized identities, including race and ethnicity. Her current book project examines the role of parenthood as salient identity for members, and particularly women, of Congress and how this shapes their legislative agenda. Her work has been published in American Politics Research, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Social Science Quarterly, and Politics, Groups, and Identities, and has also been featured in the Monkey Cage, the LegBranch blog, and the LSE USCentre blog ​She proudly serves on the Vermillion, SD City Council.

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