Still Fighting for the Vote

As the 2016 presidential elections are gearing up, you may (or may not) be considering the fact that you can exercise your right to vote. Voting rights have historically been the starting point for equal rights in the United States, especially for those in ethnic minorities. However, some members of the US are still denied the basic right to cast a vote in national elections, despite the fact that they were born and raised on U.S. soil. These individuals come from the U.S. island territories of the Virgin Islands, Northern Marianas, Guam, American Samoa and Puerto Rico.

This issue was recently brought to light by comedian John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. During his show last month, he did a segment on voting rights for U.S. territories. Since the show aired, there have been over 2 million views of the segment on Youtube, and numerous news outlets have picked up the story about voting rights since his exploration of the topic (when googling this topic, one will find that the entire first page of results is solely on John Oliver’s video). Once I learned more about the territories’ struggle for equal rights and representation, I was shocked that it took an entertaining comedian with a British accent to direct our attention towards such an important justice issue.

The U.S. acquired many of these territories after the Spanish-American War and used them as naval bases in the World Wars. Today, these islands continue to be used primarily as military bases (mostly Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard), and the indigenous peoples contribute to U.S. military needs or to the tourism industry for traveling North Americans. Despite the fact that the people on these islands are considered U.S. citizens and were born on U.S. soil (Puerto Rico actually has more U.S. citizens than 21 states), they are denied voting rights.

This denial of basic rights within democratic nations stems back to 1901 and the Insular Cases, which were a group of documents from the Supreme Court detailing why voting rights do not have to extend to U.S. territories. An argument against extending rights within the Cases is that the “alien races” that inhabit these islands do not understand “Anglo-Saxon principles,” thus the Constitution does not apply to them regarding voting rights and equal representation.

Currently, five American Samoans are suing the U.S. government for what they claim is a violation of Constitutional rights. Besides being unable to vote, American Samoans are also denied citizenship, meaning that they cannot run for president, serve on a jury or, in some cases, be a public school teacher. In February, the Obama administration cited the Insular Cases as a reason that these rights continue to be denied.

This lack of equal representation is particularly troublesome considering that many residents of these islands are in the U.S. military. In Guam, one in eight adults is a veteran, a much higher rate than in most states. Despite this high rate of veterans, in a 2012 study Guam came in last for amount of money spent on veteran healthcare. As the island territories only have non-voting house representatives, there is little that can be done by the people themselves to bring this issue to attention.

The fight for the vote is not over, not until the United States recognizes the rights of its island territories. So why did it take a pithy comedian to make us notice this?

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