50 years after Selma, Americans in U.S. territories cannot vote

Orlando Sentinel, April 14, 2015

In his speech last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, President Obama described the right to vote as the “foundation stone of our democracy.”  For Americans living in the U.S. territories, these stirring words ring hollow.

Nearly four million Americans call Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa home—a combined population greater than 22 states.

We represent those Americans in the U.S. House, but cannot vote for their interests on the House floor.  Our constituents are denied representation in the U.S. Senate.  And they are barred from the general election for president and vice-president.

Thus, when the presidential vote is tabulated in 2016, it will be as if the four million Americans we represent do not exist.

There is a time, however, when our people are counted:  when the country goes to war.

Historically, the territories have had among the highest rates of military service in the nation.  Our constituents have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq over 30,000 times since September 11, 2001, and about 120,000 military veterans live in the territories.  Yet none are allowed to cast a ballot to choose their commander-in-chief.

The President’s speech reminded Americans in the territories of our unequal status, but it also gave us reason for hope.  As Mr. Obama said:  “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done—the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”

What, then, needs to be done?  In the largest territory, Puerto Rico, many aspire to become the 51st state.  In a 2012 referendum sponsored by the Puerto Rico government, island voters made clear that they do not want Puerto Rico to remain a territory and they expressed a preference for statehood.  In response, Congress allocated $2.5 million so that Puerto Rico can hold the first federally-authorized vote on its political status since becoming a U.S. territory in 1898.  If a majority of the electorate in Puerto Rico confirms their desire for statehood in this vote, the federal government should honor that choice.  For Puerto Rico to become a state, Congress must approve—and the President must sign—legislation providing for the territory’s admission. 

Statehood would provide residents of Puerto Rico with the right to vote for president and vice-president, as well as for two U.S. senators and—based on Puerto Rico’s current population—five voting members in the U.S. House.  It would also ensure Puerto Rico’s equal treatment under all federal spending and tax programs. 

Short of statehood, extending voting rights to residents of the territories would require an amendment to the Constitution.  There is precedent for such action.  In 1961, the 23rd Amendment was ratified, granting the presidential vote to residents of the District of Columbia.  

The effort to secure voting rights is not rooted in partisanship.  Our constituents are swing voters.  Guam and American Samoa each currently have a governor and a congressional delegate from different parties.  The governor of the Northern Mariana Islands is a Republican; their delegate is an independent.  In 2014, the U.S. Virgin Islands elected a Democratic delegate and an independent governor who previously ran as a Republican.  Puerto Rico’s governor is a Democrat; his predecessor was a Republican.

But the issue does have political significance.  Although territory residents cannot vote in presidential elections, they can participate in primaries.  Moreover, an estimated five million Americans living in the states have family ties to the territories.  There are nearly one million Puerto Ricans in Florida alone, and they have been described as “the swing vote in the swing state.”  Thus, any 2016 presidential hopeful should expect to be asked whether he or she supports the right of U.S. citizens living in the territories to vote.  And voters should listen carefully to how the candidates respond.

At heart, though, what we seek is above politics.  It is an appeal to the principle of justice embodied in our nation’s founding documents and baptized with blood at Saratoga, Shiloh, and Selma.

As our congressional colleague and civil rights icon John Lewis reminded us at the Selma anniversary:  “There is still work left to be done.”  For Americans living in the territories, those words ring loud and clear.

Pedro Pierluisi (Puerto Rico), Madeleine Bordallo (Guam), Stacey Plaskett (U.S. Virgin Islands), and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands) represent these U.S. territories in Congress.

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