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American Colonies

July 28, 2017

The United Nations Charter, which was ratified and became effective in 1945, provides in article 73 for decolonization of “non-self-governing territories.” It requires UN members that administer such territories “to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions.”

Since 1946, the UN General Assembly has kept a list of non-self-governing territories. At first, the United States was a relatively minor player. But as decolonization has proceeded, the U.S. accounts for a larger share of the remaining non-self-governing territories.

The current list includes 17 non-self-governing territories: ten administered by the United Kingdom, three administered by the United States, two administered by France, one administered by New Zealand, and the unique case of Western Sahara, which used to be a Spanish colony, but is now disputed between advocates of independence and the occupying Moroccan government. The three American colonies listed are American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Territories come off the list when they achieve self-government. Self-government can take the form of national independence, as it did with the former American dependencies of  Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. It can come with full integration of the territory into an independent country, as when Alaska and Hawaii became American states or when the Panama Canal Zone was returned to Panamanian control. Or it can come from an intermediate status of dependent but autonomous self-government, as when the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico became self-governing “commonwealths” within the United States.

In this respect I think the French example is to be admired: ten former French colonies are now either “overseas departments” or “overseas collectivities.” Those ten territories are fully represented in both houses of the French legislature, and their people participate fully in French presidential elections.

By contrast, although the people of four of the five American territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but not American Samoa) are American citizens, they are not the voting equals of other American citizens. Each of the five territories has one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, who can participate in debate and committee voting but cannot participate in voting on the House floor. The territories have no representation in the U.S. Senate. And although the territories send delegations to the major parties’ nominating conventions (by virtue of party rules, not by legal right), they do not vote in presidential general elections.

The irony is that people born in the four territories other than American Samoa, being U.S. citizens, can travel to the fifty states without passports, and, if they stay, as perhaps several million have done over the decades, they can vote and be represented just like any other U.S. citizen. (American Samoans can travel to the states without passports, and can become naturalized citizens after three months’ residence.) In other words, the fitness of our territorial citizens for full participation in American democracy is established; their disqualification is based solely on their place of residence.

Residents of all of the territories are subject to American federal taxation, at the discretion of the American federal government. And taxation, as our forebears insisted some 240 years ago, may not justly be imposed without representation. That was the point, after all, of the original Tea Party.

Separate from the five territories is the District of Columbia. Like the territories, D.C. has one non-voting member of the House and no Senators. Unlike the territories, by virtue of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, D.C. casts electoral votes in presidential elections. But the number of electoral votes allotted to D.C. is limited – no matter what its population might be, D.C. can never cast more electoral votes than the “least populous state.” (This particular point is moot for the moment; although D.C. has more people than Vermont or Wyoming, its population isn’t large enough to get more than the minimum of three electoral votes.)

It seems to me that citizens of a country founded so prominently on the principle of “no taxation without representation” ought to be unhappy about imposing taxation on territories without allowing them full representation. If it were a state, the District of Columbia would have two senators and one representative. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would rank 30th in population; it would have two senators, four representatives, and six electoral votes.

Residents of the District of Columbia have been clear about their desire for statehood. A 2016 referendum drew 86 percent in favor of statehood and only 14 percent opposed. I see no reason that D.C. shouldn’t be granted statehood.

Puerto Rico has held five referendums on the question over the last 50 years. The results show a population divided fairly evenly between retaining Puerto Rico’s existing commonwealth status and seeking statehood; independence has proved to be relatively unpopular.

The 2012 referendum presented the issue in two parts. Part 1 was the question whether to retain the existing commonwealth status or seek some change, the voter options being only “yes” or “no.” Voters opted for a change by 54 to 46 percent. Part 2 asked voters to state what their preferred status would be if commonwealth status were no longer an option. On that question, voters preferred statehood by 61 percent to 33 percent for independence with a “free association” treaty with the U.S. and six percent for independence without such a treaty.

Since I regard commonwealth status as second-class status, I agree with the premise of the second question, that remaining in commonwealth status should no longer be a long-term option. Puerto Rican voters should be required to choose between statehood and independence (with or without a free association treaty) – although a long transition period, maybe as much as ten years, should be provided.

The remaining four territories have not experienced the popular groundswell for a change in status that D.C. and Puerto Rico have. And they are much smaller – the four territories together have less than two-thirds the population of our least populous state, and their collective population is actually shrinking slightly in recent years. Furthermore, partly by virtue of distance, they are much less well integrated into American social, political and economic life than are D.C. and Puerto Rico.

So final resolution of the status of those four territories seems less pressing than it is for D.C. or Puerto Rico. Still, for the time being, the four territories should at least be given voting representation in the House of Representatives, and at least nominal participation in the Electoral College.

Puerto Rican statehood or independence can be done by act of Congress, signed by the President. The other measures I propose require constitutional amendments – D.C. statehood and territorial representation would override existing constitutional provisions. Still, if we believe that taxation must depend on representation, and that one person is entitled to one vote, then our own notions of justice require that we act.


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