Throughout President Donald Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, he’s combating the perception that the federal government did less for the island territory after Hurricane Maria than it did for the US states that suffered damage after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Trump makes his case to millions of American citizens who didn’t vote for him last November because they couldn’t. There are no electoral votes for Puerto Rico.
Things did not get off to a great start when Trump told Puerto Rican officials Tuesday, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
“But that’s fine,” Trump said. He seemed to be joking.
What are Puerto Ricans supposed to do about it? This is the cruel irony of their position – they are citizens, yes, but they do not have the governmental voice, power or voting rights of other citizens.
If Puerto Rican residents really wanted to vote for president, they could. But they’d have to leave Puerto Rico and move to a state. Puerto Rican natives in Florida and New York are actually a key and growing voting bloc, but only so long as they’re registered to cast a ballot there. Likewise, if a Floridian, or any other American, moved to Puerto Rico on a permanent basis, they’d no longer vote for an elector and so they’d no longer have a vote for US president. (Puerto Ricans can vote in party primaries; they opted for Sen. Marco Rubio in the March GOP primary and Hillary Clinton in the June Democratic caucus).
There are many reasons – many of them logistical, others less clear – why the Puerto Rico hurricane response seemed distinct from and less effective than the massive responses engaged for Texas and Florida.
How could this be? As CNN and others pointed out, Puerto Rico has a larger population than 21 US states. But the simple, stark fact is this: Puerto Ricans are essentially only half-citizens in the eyes of the federal government.
While it is true that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, it is also true that their voice in the US government is worth less than other Americans’, a sad but true fact of the American version of democracy.
Witness: Puerto Rico had no senator hollering from the rooftops about the slow-to-arrive aid. It relied on the able work of some other senators, like Rubio of Florida, who also advocated for his own state.
Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey is another strong advocate for the island. But he is currently on trial for corruption and so has been otherwise engaged. (His office reached out after publication to point out Menendez’s advocacy, despite his trial, on behalf of relief funding and his trip to Puerto Rico after the hurricane. “Sen. Menendez has played a leading role in Congress fighting to ensure that the federal government provides the necessary resources and assistance to the more than 3.5 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who were impacted by Hurricanes Maria and Irma,” said spokesman Juan Pachon in an email.)
What Puerto Rico does have, not unlike Washington, DC,’s non-voting delegate, is a resident commissioner – a liaison to Congress who has some of the benefits of being a member but who cannot vote. None of these territories or districts has representation in the Senate. That’s a big deal when it comes to things like funding bills. Given the outsize power of a senator on things like funding and, in this case, disaster aid, Puerto Rico starts off far behind.
Puerto Rico is by far the largest non-state territory. About a half a million people, combined, live in American Samoa, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. But Puerto Rico has well more than 3 million residents. It’s bigger than 21 US states with members of Congress, two senators each and presidential electoral votes on the line every four years.
The Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera, long one of the minority of Puerto Ricans who supported independence from the US, wrote eloquently about all of this in the LA Times recently, dubbing his home a “zombie state.”
“Puerto Rico is effectively a zombie state,” he said. “A US territory with no true self-governing power, expressing its ‘will’ in periodic toothless plebiscites, most recently in June with a nonbinding referendum in favor of statehood.”
He said the hurricane and its aftermath has him rethinking his support for independence. Puerto Ricans are grateful to be US citizens, Rivera said. They are eligible for Medicare and Social Security benefits but not SSI benefits for the disabled, for some reason. Rivera pointed out that for all the responsibilities of citizenship, the island is denied some of the key perks.
It’s hard to imagine the Republicans who control Washington getting behind a Puerto Rico statehood initiative anytime soon. The voters there, largely Hispanic, would theoretically be more likely to support Democrats.
Things are slightly better for the nearly 700,000 residents of Washington, DC, who have access to the governing class but don’t have voting representation in Congress. Denizens of the District, unlike Puerto Ricans, do have the ability to vote for electors (3 – the same as the least populous US state) in presidential races, but only because the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution expressly gave it to them in 1992. If Puerto Rico had electors to equal its population, which is a bit larger than Connecticut, it would have 7 or more.
The hurricane and its aftermath have not yet sparked a Puerto Rico statehood debate. It could, however, still impact future US elections if there is an exodus of Puerto Ricans to Florida – where memories of these past few weeks could shape a new generation of voters.
Correction: This article misidentified New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez as having Puerto Rican heritage. He is Cuban-American.