As I was watching an episode of “Last Week with John Oliver,” an interesting topic caught my attention. Around 4.1 million American citizens today still do not have equal voting rights. These are the citizens of our American island territories: the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas. Even more troubling, the law that forbids these citizens to have equal voting rights dates back to 1901 and was created because the islands were inhabited by “alien races,” as 98.4% of the inhabitants are racial minorities. The law was written by the same man who wrote the separate but equal decision in Plessey v. Ferguson, Henry Brown, but even he said these exceptions to the constitution should only be temporary. A century later, these American citizens are still discriminated against.
In Puerto Rico, the citizens are Americans, but cannot vote for president, have no US senators, and can send one delegate to the house who has a voice but no vote. People today still refer to Puerto Ricans as immigrants even though the island has more US citizens than 21 states; however, they have less voting rights than any of those states.
The residents of Guam are treated even more unfairly. While 27% of the island is occupied by US naval and air force bases, the residents have no say in their general elections for commander and chief. In addition, Guam has one of the highest percentages of all US states for the number of residing veterans. 1 in 8 Guamanians is a veteran. Unfortunately, due to the exceptions in the constitution, the veterans are shockingly underserved. In 2012, Guam ranked last in medical care spending for veterans. A veteran seeking treatment for PTSD would have to travel over 3,800 miles to reach a hospital. Along with the poor treatment of their veterans, Guam citizens are also excluded from voting in the presidential election. However, Guam still holds a straw poll for every election, and their registered voter turnout is actually higher than the rest of the country: Guam 67%, US 61.8%. Imagine having the desire to vote as a citizen of the US but not being allowed to because you were born on a US territory instead of in a US state.
American Samoans are the worst off of all the US island territories. Samoans not only lack voting rights, they are also not given automatic citizenship. The US grants citizenship to everyone born on American soil except American Samoa for no clear reason. The island is also the home of number 1 ranked US army recruiting station. The veterans have to walk around with a humiliating reminder that although they have served their country, they do not have the status of American citizens, even though their country is ironically called American Samoa. Because they are not granted automatic citizenship, the US has labeled them as US nationals; the last page of their passports actually reads: “the bearer is a united states national and not a united states citizen.” In response to the demeaning nature of their situation as US nationals, five American Samoans are suing the US government. The government has fought them based on insular cases from earlier: “American Samoans, like the other US territories, can be given fewer rights because they belong to alien races, differing from us in customs and modes of thought.”
It was surprising to learn about the discriminating situations the US island territory inhabitants. Even more surprising was to learn that they are denied equal rights because of a law written over a century. What do you think? Does the US government have any qualified reason for denying these American citizens the right to vote?