Problems with the Prohibition of Voting Rights in U.S. Territories

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SEATTLE — Residents of the United States’ territories remain constitutionally barred from voting in federal elections despite their status as American citizens. The fight for voting rights in U.S. territories has been at the forefront of media attention recently. This is in large part due to a number of ongoing cases seeking to create a precedent that allows citizens of these territories to vote.

The Segovia v. Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners case is one of the lawsuits challenging the nature of citizenship and voting rights in U.S. territories. After the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled against the plaintiffs and denied a motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs, with the help of the NGO We the People Project, have turned to crowdfunding to subsidize an appeal to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court.

The fact that there’s still so much debate over the constitutionality of granting voting rights to American citizens residing in U.S. territories is problematic for three reasons:

  1. A large population of American citizens are not being granted their right to representation within the federal government.
  2. The U.S. has five permanently inhabited territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands. Between the five, the total population is more than four million people.
  3. Currently, the only legal way these four million American citizens can vote in federal elections is to move and change their residency to one of the contiguous states.

Despite being allowed to serve active duty on behalf of the United States and millions being of voting age, there is no current way for these individuals to stay in their homes and also have the representation rights they are guaranteed under the Constitution.

The necessary amendment to the U.S. Constitution has already been made with respect to inhabitants of Washington D.C. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that only U.S. citizens living in one of the fifty continental states are permitted voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College.

Individual political parties may be allowed to elect delegates to represent each territory at conventions, but this does not change the fact that the Electoral College system does not allow for residents to vote in presidential elections. It’s argued that this is because the Constitution specifies that citizens living in the states are guaranteed the right to vote in federal elections, which does not clearly extend coverage to voting rights in U.S. territories.

However, the same argument could have been made with regard to residents of Washington D.C. until the 23rd amendment was ratified in 1961. Some people have argued that the amendment for D.C., and lack thereof for the U.S. territories, is due to the overwhelming majority of racial minorities, highly specialized economies and higher rates of poverty in the U.S. territories that simply are not present in D.C.

The “Insular Cases” refers to a number of early-1900s court decisions that distinguished between incorporated territories — those that were meant to become states — and unincorporated — those recently acquired in the Spanish-American War. At the time, the decisions made it clear that the inhabitants of unincorporated territories were viewed as uncivilized “aliens” and so the Constitution did not apply and the populations were not granted citizenship.

Since then, various laws have extended birthright citizenship to four of the permanent U.S. territories, however, citizens of American Samoa are still termed merely as “American nationals” and cannot claim citizenship unless one or both of their parents were born in the continental United States.

Even though the premises of the “Insular Cases” were deemed racist and unconstitutional, and citizenship was eventually granted to four territories, the law has still never been amended to grant voting rights in U.S. territories in conjunction with their classification as birthright citizens.

Jaime Viens

Photo: Flickr

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