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The Briefing: The forgotten disenfranchised Americans

WASHINGTON – No one really knows how many people died in Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria, but one thing is certain: Most were American citizens who lived as second-class citizens.

That reality, along with a host of others, may have something to do with the fact that the horrible suffering wrought by Maria remains a bit of a mystery in the continental United States. After all, citizens who don't have full voting rights – such as those in Puerto Rico, the four other U.S. territories and the District of Columbia – naturally don't get the same government and media attention as those who do.

Before we take a close look at that disenfranchisement of 4.7 million Americans, let's examine what you may not have noticed: the terrible toll of a storm that may have claimed more lives than Hurricane Katrina.

An estimated 1,883 people died in that latter storm, which battered the Gulf Coast in 2005. But according to a study released last week by the New England Journal of Medicine, about 4,600 died in Puerto Rico last year when and after Maria swept through the island.

The New England Journal of Medicine is the gold standard of medical research, but frankly, this study may not be worth its weight in fool's gold. It's based on a survey of 3,000 households, a relatively small number in an island with 3.67 million residents, meaning its margin of error is gigantic. A close look at the study shows it's by no means definitive that 4,600 people died; considering the margin of error, the study placed the number of deaths at somewhere between 800 and 8,500.

But even if it's 800, that's more than the official death toll of 64. Moreover, several other independent studies put Maria's toll in Puerto Rico at between 1,052 and 1,065.

If those studies are accurate, Maria was nearly 10 times as deadly as Hurricane Harvey, which inundated the Houston area last year. What's more, while the Houston area bounced back relatively quickly from that storm, Puerto Rico suffered power outages and shortages of medicine for months afterwards. Some people on the island are still without adequate housing, and the suicide rate is climbing.

Now if that were happening in, say, Florida, it's likely that politicians from the president on down would be held responsible. Remember, the government's shoddy response to Katrina – not the Iraq War – drove President George W. Bush's approval ratings to new lows.

But few Americans have seemed to notice what a Politico investigation proved: that President Trump favored Texas' recovery from Hurricane Harvey over that of Puerto Rico.

There are probably several reasons for this. There's always a huge media presence in a huge American city like Houston, so Hurricane Harvey got more media attention and a lackluster recovery effort would have gotten more attention, too. Moreover, only the dimmest of Americans wouldn't know that Texas is part of the United States, but nearly half of American's don't know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, too.

Lastly, Puerto Ricans can't exactly react to the government's shoddy response to Maria at the ballot box the way other Americans could. They can't throw the bums out because there are hardly any bums to throw out.

Puerto Rico's 3.67 million residents get one non-voting member of Congress. If it were a state, it would have five House members (given that each congressional district has about 700,000 residents) and two U.S. senators.

Residents of the District of Columbia, population 693,972, are similarly disenfranchised, with one non-voting House member and no real senators, although they, unlike residents of the U.S. territories, at least get electoral votes in presidential elections. Residents of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, with a combined 375,000 or so people, are just like Puerto Ricans: they don't get an electoral vote in presidential elections or a vote in Congress.

Most of those places are clearly too tiny to measure up as states, but Puerto Rico and D.C. most definitely could. In fact, Maria has reignited the push for statehood in Puerto Rico, although the D.C. statehood movement has long been stalled.

It will probably be years before Puerto Rico and D.C. become states, if they ever do. But in the meantime, one thing is clear: a country that gives only partial voting rights to millions of its citizens is a less than perfect union – one that might not pay a lot of attention to those citizens when disaster strikes.

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