Selma and the Right To Vote in U.S. Territories

“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote.” – Rep. John Lewis, referring to the 1965 assault by Alabama state troopers on peaceful marchers.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act was one of the most critical legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement because it outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in several southern states after the Civil War that were used to prevent people of color from gaining access to the ballot.

Obama_black_and_white.jpgDuring Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, the President pushed Congress to restore key provisions of the 1965 Act and highlighted that in 2015, the “sacred” right to vote is still “being denied to too many.”  Today, 119,000 Virgin Islanders live in the shadow of this disenfranchised number.  

Although American citizens living in Germany, Australia or Tunisia have the right to vote for President under federal law, over 4 million Americans living in the Territories cannot vote for President and do not have a voting representative in Congress, despite the fact that we are U.S. born citizens, living on U.S. soil.   

My father‘s story is just one example of how this unfair and illogical practice affects people living in the Territories.  James Johnson was born on St. Croix in Estate Bethlehem in 1922.  He left home, became a labor organizer and supported the Civil Rights movement in New York and the District of Columbia, where he voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. 

He returned home in 1987.  In 2008, he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the HOPE slogan of the Obama campaign, but could not vote for the president simply because he chose to live in the Virgin Islands.  

My dad’s story is set against a backdrop of the more than 150,000 current military veterans, not including tens of thousands of others who have sacrificed and served this country since the Second World War, but who could not cast a single vote in federal elections as long as they chose to live in any of the U.S. Territories.   

We are denied full enjoyment of the right to vote, in part, because in the early 1900s the Supreme Court decided a series of cases collectively referred to as “the Insular Cases.”  In a break from prior precedent, the leading case, Downes v. Bidwell, decided in 1901, held that it would be constitutionally prudent to deny residents of overseas Territories equal Constitutional rights after referring to island residents as uncivilized “savages.”   These Plessy-era cases underscore the bigoted reasoning of the time, but have yet to be overturned or effectively challenged.  

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. heralded that “[n]ow is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” On Tuesday our mixed-race, African-American, Hawaiian-born President advocated for: universal community college education; gay and lesbian rights; and closing Guantanamo Bay during his term of office because it is “not who we are.” Over the past five years “mainland” Americans have demonstrated against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, with social media vividly connecting the efforts of these change-agents, many of whom are laboring for advanced equality through acts of civil disobedience reminiscent of 1960s civil rights activism.   

The 2016 general elections will serve a pivotal role in navigating our progress throughout the next decades.  If our country’s past is prelude, “now” is the perpetually ideal time to gain headway on territorial voting equality.

Given the current congressional composition and our lack of a vote in Congress, it will take a game-changer to get results in Washington. It is for this reason we should look for recourse through the Courts.  On February 9, 2015, the D.C. Circuit will hear an appeal in Tuaua v United States, which takes on the flawed reasoning of the Insular Cases by arguing that the Constitution-not Congress-guarantees citizenship by birth in U.S. Territories.  While the Courts grapple with Tuaua, The We the People Project in conjunction with  Delegate to Congress, Stacey Plaskett, concerned Virgin Islands law firms, and every day citizens are developing new, targeted federal  litigation to advance our right to vote and reject the kind of inequality sanctioned by the Insular Cases.   

Our goal is achievable.  Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the doctrine of “separate but unequal” in 1954 and led to the political advances of the 1960s, began as a series of cases dating back to the 1930s.  The right to vote for President was only recently extended to residents of the District of Columbia via the 23rd Amendment in 1961.   

We deserve no less.  

Our disenfranchisement is not simply a question of the symbolic ballot or numerical voting power.  It is a fundamental issue of Constitutional equality, one that affects everything from the price of electricity and groceries to jobs and healthcare.  

In the Territories, our most pressing, practical question in this pursuit is: Do we want it enough? 

If your answer to that question is yes, I encourage you to visit www.RepresentVI.org to help make the case that our right to vote shouldn’t depend on our choice to live in the Virgin Islands. 

semaj_2.jpgSemaj I. Johnson, Esq., K.A. Rames, PC., is an attorney based in St. Croix, USVI.  He can be reached at (340) 773-7284.

Also published January 23, 2105 by the Virgin Islands Daily News

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