Voting rights has become an increasingly partisan issue. In Wisconsin, new voter ID laws led to brutal lines at the polls in urban areas—a development designed, even according to Republicans themselves, to suppress Democratic turnout. In Virginia at the end of April, governor Terry McAuliffe re-enfranchised all felons who had finished parole. In theory, the move returned the vote to 200,000 people. This was a refutation of a policy originally designed to explicitly deny black people the vote. It was also, potentially, a way to give more votes to more minority and poor voters, and tip a narrowly balanced purple state more Democratic in the US presidential election. The focus on voter IDs and felon disenfranchisement—while important—has inadvertently obscured other voting rights issues. Every year, with little comment, the United States denies millions of people representation in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and other territories. Washington, DC, has a population of over 650,000 people. That makes it larger than the states of Vermont or Wyoming, and yet it has no voting representatives in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Puerto Rico has a population of around 3.5 million people, which makes it more populous than states like Nevada, Iowa, and Arkansas. But not only do Puerto Ricans lack Congressional representation, they also cannot vote in presidential elections (unlike residents of DC, who are entitled to three votes in the Electoral College).
“The lack of voting rights in DC and other territories is not quite the same as voter suppression, in that those places have never had voting rights,” says political scientist Celeste Montoya of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Nonetheless, the effects of the voting limitations are parallel; voter ID and felon disenfranchisement restrict the power of minority voters at the polls, and so does the disenfranchisement of people in DC and Puerto Rico.
Washington, DC, has historically been majority African-American; in recent years, an influx of white residents has changed that, but black people still account for 49.5% of the electorate. Puerto Rico’s population is 98% Hispanic. Both territories consistently vote Democratic in local elections. According to Montoya, “The racial voting gaps present in the last several elections make Republicans less inclined to entertain and more likely to outright block any efforts to enfranchise DC or Puerto Rico voters.”