How Delegates work
Under the Constitution, only states are given representation in Congress. However, the American government has long recognized that territorial possessions of the United States deserve some form of say in Congress. In 1787 under the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance Act introduced a non-voting Delegate office for territories with at least 5,000 “free male inhabitants”. After the ratification of the Constitution, the first Delegate – James White of the Southwest Territory, later admitted to the Union as Tennessee – was admitted in 1794. Today, six Delegates are elected to Congress – five from territories, and one from the District of Columbia athough theirs will be covered in a future article.
Delegates are the only representation territories have in the federal government. Delegates serve in the House of Representatives and have all the rights and privileges members of Congress have, with one exception – they are unable to vote on legislation. However, Delegates are fully able to vote in caucus meetings for their political parties, as well as within the committees they are assigned to. Delegates can theoretically serve in party leadership or in other crucial roles; for example, U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D) served as an impeachment manager in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment.
Why Delegates exist
Traditionally, Delegates were assigned to territories that would later become states. As many as ten Delegates served at once; today, five territories send Delegates or Delegate-equivalents. These five territories are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U. S. Virgin Islands. Over 3.6 million people reside in territories, with the vast majority – almost 3.29 million – residing in Puerto Rico alone. Almost all residents of territories are natively US citizens, the exception being American Samoa, whose residents are instead “non citizen nationals”.
In the future, there may be an additional form of Delegate added to Congress. Under the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, Congress allocated the Cherokee Nation a non-voting Delegate to Congress; they had previously allocated the Choctaw a Delegate in the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Neither tribe had taken Congress up on this – until recently. In 2019, the Cherokee Nation, which has over 450,000 enrolled members, designed Kimberly Teehee as their Delegate, and have since been fighting for Congress to fulfill its treaty obligations and seat the Delegate.
If Teehee is admitted, this may open the floodgates for additional Cherokee Delegates. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, a smaller tribe consisting of 14,300 members, has also designated a Delegate, while North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a tribe of over 16,000 members, is actively considering designating one as well.
|Northern Mariana Islands||2.1%||1.2%||0.1%||46.6%||43.7%|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||12.7%||18.4%||71.4%||1.0%||0.1%|
Each territory is majority nonwhite; only one, the U.S. Virgin Islands, has a White population of 10% or more. However, each of the territories differs greatly in terms of racial demographics. The three Pacific territories – American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands – all have large populations of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are part of the same island chain have similar demographics; American Samoa, in contrast, is almost monolithically Pacific Islander.
The Atlantic territories – Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands – are majority Hispanic and Black, respectively. However, both have relatively sizable minorities, with 10% of Puerto Ricans identifying as Black and 18.4% of Virgin Islanders identifying as Hispanic.
2022 election results
|American Samoa||Amata Coleman Radewagen (R)||N/A||100%|
|Northern Mariana Islands||Gregorio Sablan (D)||100%||N/A|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||Stacey Plaskett (D)||100%||N/A|
Only five of the six Delegate offices were up in 2022. This is because Puerto Rico’s Delegate, known as the Resident Commissioner, is only elected every four years; incumbent Jenniffer González-Colón, a member of pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Republican Party, won re-election with a 41.2% plurality in 2020.
Of the races up in 2022 only two saw actual multi-party competition; this isn’t unusual, as Delegates tend to be returned at a higher rater and with higher percentages than Representatives. A great example of this is American Samoa delegate Amata Coleman Radewagen (R). She was first elected in 2014 with 41% of the vote against two Democrats. Since then, her margin has increased every election: 75.4% in 2016, 83.3% in 2018, 83.5% in 2020, and finally uncontested in 2022. Conversely, Democrat Gregorio Sablan has had little difficulty winning re-election for years in the Republican-leaning Northern Mariana Islands. Of the two contested races in 2022, only one was competitive. This race was in Guam, where Republicans managed to flip the seat red for the first time since 1990.
This unexpected flip gave Republicans a majority of territorial delegates for the first time in modern American history. This seemingly provided impetus for Republicans to change a longstanding policy when in the House majority. For the first time, Republicans retained a Democratic-backed rule that allows Delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole House, provided their vote doesn’t alter the final outcome. Because the Constitution assigns representation to states only, Delegates cannot be given a vote on actual bills. This pseudo-vote in the Committee of the Whole House allows them a greater say than usual. While this rule has traditionally been revoked when Republicans have the House and reinstated when Democrats control the House, Republicans now appear content to keep it in place – for the time being, at least.
- American Samoa: Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-Pago Pago)
- Guam: James Moylan (R-Tumon)
- Northern Mariana Islands: Gregorio Sablan (D-Saipan)
- Puerto Rico: Jenniffer González-Colón (PNP/R-Carolina)
- U.S. Virgin Islands: Stacey Plaskett (D-St. Croix)