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Voter Disenfranchisement Part 2: Taxation Without Representation

We’ve all heard the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Our early elementary school teachers made sure of that. It was the rallying cry of revolutionaries fighting the British occupation and control of what would become the United States. But it’s more than a nifty wartime slogan – there’s real meaning behind it. Why should our government order someone to pay taxes without giving them a fair shot to influence the spending of that revenue? We wouldn’t pay the taxes of other countries, after all. That tenet of our country’s founding is a political truism.

So why have we strayed so far from this idea?

Right now, over four million people pay U.S. taxes without any representation in Congress. The residents of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the North Mariana Islands, and Washington, D.C. are all subject to the whims of Congress without any say in the matter. In the U.S. Capitol, they don’t hold any votes. That group of residents equals that of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota combined. This is among the largest group of disenfranchised voters in the entire world.

Territories and the District of Columbia all boast delegates in the House of Representatives. These delegates can speak and vote in committees, introduce bills, and even offer amendments during debate. They cannot, however, vote on the House floor. And there are no territorial delegates in the Senate. In short, voters from the above list of non-states don’t share the same agency as others in influencing our laws and policies. This is even more shocking when you consider residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the North Mariana Islands do not pay federal income tax. They do pay most payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, however.

No matter how you look at it, we’ve violated our revolutionary philosophy. Instead of ensuring all those subject to U.S. rule can influence it, we’ve walled off millions from doing so. Unsurprisingly, most of these non-state residents are minorities.

Activists and politicians alike have made multiple attempts to shake something loose from this situation. Congress has proposed and debated statehood for Washington, D.C. several times. In one instance, they even offered a constitutional amendment to codify the notion. Thus far, all these movements in pursuit of representation have failed. In 2016, District residents made their will clear by voting in favor of statehood at a stunning 86%. We must do everything we can to influence our elected officials to heed their calls and enfranchise nearly 700,000 voters at once.

Perhaps accomplishing that will spur action in Puerto Rico, Guam, and all the other territories. And perhaps this is why Congress has historically opposed the idea – once the District is made a state, they’ll have no choice but to follow through with other territories. We all know how difficult voting rights reform can be, but this issue demands our attention. Wherever votes are disenfranchised, we must prioritize and advocate for solutions. Even if that means resorting to our revolutionary slogans.