Hope for the Disunited States?

7 March 2021

There’s a faint hope of re-balancing the electoral system in America. 

Neither Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia are states and are pushing to become parts of the union.  (Imagine:  the district occupied by the White House and the Capitol isn’t yet a state – its residents can vote in presidential elections and they pay more in federal taxes than any ‘real’ state but they don’t have a voting member in the House of Congress or a voice in the Senate.) 

After what they perceived as an utterly inadequate federal response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. Puerto Rico voted in favour of becoming the 51st state.  If this were approved and if DC became the 52nd state, it could give the Democrats more seats in the Senate but they would still needs 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster which could prevent the proposal being carried so, with American politics being as partisan as they are, the current 50:50 split could make this difficult to achieve.

Both Puerto Rico and DC have large non-white populations and Republicans’ opposition to granting them statehood has been described as a bid to protect white minority rule and as “a fundamental democratic flaw” that “reeks of hypocrisy”.

Back in the day, of course, senators would vote for what they thought was best for the United States but the ‘United’ bit is now very dubious and senators tend to toe the party line to ensure their voters will choose them again next time they’re up for re-election so, in practice, senators’ desire to keep their seat overrides what’s best for the country as a whole.

Perhaps some of the older, more mature ‘moderate’ Republicans who are thinking of retiring anyway will allow their brains to override their bank balances.

However, the filibuster is being questioned at the moment over a Bill to extend voting rights within the existing 50 states.  Perhaps this could be used as a precedent to extend voting rights to residents in Puerto Rico and DC.

In addition to Puerto Rico, there are four other inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands.  Apart from American Samoa, people in these territories are US citizens and have to pay some federal taxes.  They also send delegates to the House of Representatives who can debate legislation and sit on committees but aren’t actually able to vote.

If these four territories also became states, the influence of different American peoples, particularly those of colour, would become much more representative.

Then they can start work on updating the electoral college system and the way in which senators are elected.  With demographic changes over the years since the current system was set up, a New York Times columnist calculated that the Senate now gives the average black American only 75% as much representation as the average white American, with the average Hispanic American getting only 55% as much.

Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.

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