Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The US House of Representatives passed a bill in favor of DC statehood Friday. Both the Republican Party and the President oppose statehood for the nation’s capital, so the bill will almost certainly go nowhere in the Senate — for now. But should Joe Biden win the presidency and bring with him majorities in the House and Senate, he should make statehood for DC — and for Puerto Rico — a priority for his first 100 days in office.
The argument why is a simple one: 700,000 Americans in DC and more than 3 million in Puerto Rico currently lack equal representation in Congress, one of the protections that statehood affords. As a matter of democratic principles, it’s an easy one for Democrats to get behind. In fact, Biden has expressed support for DC statehood for years. But it’s also one they should prioritize, because of the Republican Party’s wholesale assault on democratic participation.
Examples abound, from the Trump administration and before: their attempts to restrict voting access through strict voter ID laws, voting roll purges, poll closures, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. At the state level, Republican legislators have moved to strip Democratic governors of power and dramatically redistrict so they can hold onto a majority of seats with far less than majority support. All of that reflects a growing hostility to one-person, one-vote democracy — which is understandable, given that the GOP is increasingly a minoritarian party.
In the face of those challenges to the democratic process, Democrats have a special duty to make the case for popular democracy. Support for DC and Puerto Rico statehood is wholly consistent with that commitment.
But this is not a debate just about abstract values. The Trump administration has made brutally clear the real-life consequences of second-class citizenship. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, a catastrophic category 5 storm that smashed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing an estimated 3,000 people, destroying the island’s power grid and causing more than $90 billion in damages, the president showed shockingly little interest in the territory’s suffering.
When he wasn’t attempting to block aid to the island, he was bitterly complaining about the aid that did make it to the millions of devastated Americans. In an act of extraordinary pettiness, in December of last year he intervened in budget talks specifically to slash Medicaid funding to Puerto Rico in half. With no senators or representatives to protect Puerto Rico (all the territory has is a non-voting resident commissioner), there was little the territory could do.
Oh, and they don’t get a say in the presidential election, either — though anyone born in Puerto Rico is a US citizen, the territory has no electoral votes. (It took a Constitutional amendment for DC to get any, and they still can’t have any more than the least populous state in America, setting them alongside Wyoming with three electors.)
Residents of Washington, DC, had their own reckoning with the administration’s brutality earlier this month, during protests against police violence. Trump had been itching to “dominate the streets” as protests spread across the nation, threatening to send in the US military to quell unrest. But there was really only one place he could easily do so: the nation’s capital. With no governor to oversee the city’s National Guard, the federal government largely oversees its use. And how did the administration flex that power? By using overwhelming, unnecessary force against peaceful protestors and journalists, all to clear the way for a presidential photo op.
The use of force, seemingly ordered by Attorney General Bill Barr, led to shocking scenes in front of the White House, in part triggering the revived push for DC statehood. Now there was a new argument on top of “no taxation without representation”: DC residents need statehood to protect themselves from a lawless president.
It’s true that enfranchising DC and Puerto Rico through statehood would likely benefit Democrats electorally (although it’s not at all clear that Puerto Rico would be a blue state, and some leading Republicans have long supported Puerto Rican statehood). But that’s not an argument against statehood. American citizens have the right to equal representation. The solution is not to stop Democratic voters from exercising their right to vote — that’s both immoral and undemocratic. The solution is to win them over. If the Republican Party can’t do that, then it doesn’t deserve to be in power.
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A core principle of American democracy — more honored in the breach than in the observance — is the right to representation by the people. For some 230 years, Americans have fought to expand the definition of “the people,” securing citizenship and voting rights for women, for Black and Indigenous Americans, for people of Asian and Hispanic descent. It’s time to continue that process of expansion by bringing the full rights of citizenship to DC and Puerto Rico — a process Joe Biden, should he become president, should make an urgent priority.