Why some U.S. citizens won't get to vote for president because of where they live

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This election cycle, millions of Americans and U.S. nationals will head to the polls to participate in a vote that is largely for show. Starting with American Samoa on Super Tuesday, those living in one of the five U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands in addition to American Samoa — will vote in the Democratic primary elections, but come Election Day in November, they’ll be effectively silenced, with no way to cast a ballot. Washington, D.C., meanwhile, will vote in both the primary and general elections, but still has no voting representation Congress.

Puerto Rico will send 58 delegates to the nominating convention this summer — more delegates than 22 states have to offer. Together, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands have 151 delegates — almost as many as vaunted swing states like Michigan and Ohio, which proved critical in the election of President Trump in 2016.

While American Samoans are not U.S. citizens, since 1900, those born in American Samoa have been conscripted for military service and pay into federal benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Despite these contributions to American infrastructure, though, Samoans are considered to be "nationals" of the U.S., but not citizens. For the other territories plus D.C., residents are granted U.S. citizenship, but they still don’t have the right to vote and don't have members of Congress with voting power.


Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, a non-voting delegate to Congress from the U.S. Virgin Islands, told Mic via email that "the harsh reality for U.S. Virgin Islanders is that despite being U.S. citizens and having to uphold all of the responsibilities that come with U.S. citizenship," they are "disenfranchised" and "not awarded all the benefits of being U.S. citizens."

This unequal provision of voting rights is effectively racism baked into the American justice system. The federal practice of disenfranchisement dates back to what are called "insular" legal cases: In the 1900s, the Supreme Court ruled that because the island nations are "inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought," the federal government could maintain its ownership of the territories without providing the economic and political benefits that come with incorporation. At the time, the judicial opinion stated that this arrangement should only exist "for a time" — yet here we are, nearly 120 years later.

Ninety-eight percent of those living in the territories are ethnic minorities. Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice, an advocacy organization that works to empower the Latinx community on a series of issues, tells Mic that the colonial relationship the federal government has with territories is a "classic denial of human rights and self-determination."

There are 4 million residents living in the U.S. territories and a little more than 700,000 people living in Washington, D.C. Consider that Connecticut, which is home to 3.6 million residents; Idaho, which has 1.8 million residents; and Wyoming, which less than 600,000 people call home, all vote in the general election and have full voting representation in Congress, and the injustice is clear.

Of American Samoans eligible to vote, about 61% turned out in 2014 to send a non-voting delegate to the House.

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, after the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are considered to be full American citizens, but still they can’t vote for president. They elect their own governor and assembly members, and even send a representative to Congress, but that representative doesn't have the power to vote on the Hill.

"It's un-American and undemocratic that we keep 4 million people at bay just because of racist underpinnings from the 1900s that are now widely understood to be offensive and unconstitutional. There's no chance that this would pass muster under our modern understanding of constitutional laws," Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Mic.

At the risk of stating the obvious: It’s not like U.S. citizens living in territories and American Samoans don’t want to vote or lack a desire for representation. "The territories have higher voter participation rates than the mainland United States does," Neal Weare, the founder and director of advocacy organization Equally American, tells Mic. Equally American works for equal representation of those living in U.S. territories.

Take American Samoa for example, which has a population of about 55,700 and, again, whose residents aren't even granted U.S. citizenship despite paying into several social programs. Of American Samoans eligible to vote, about 61% turned out in 2014 to send a non-voting delegate to the House. According to FairVote, just 36.7% of eligible mainland-American voters showed up to cast a ballot that same year.

The flag of American Samoa. [Shutterstock]

This struggle for representation is also the centerpiece of the fight for statehood in Washington, D.C. Some in the district have repurposed the Revolution-era rallying cry, "taxation without representation," to describe their current relationship to the country. Last year, Congress held a hearing on D.C. statehood, the first one in 26 years, but as it stands right now, residents of the city that is home to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, don’t have any say as to what goes on in those buildings. "Washington, D.C. ... still does not reflect the ideals of democracy and representative government that the country seems to be founded on," Derieux says.

Though the battle for statehood is politicized, the political process is fairly simple and would ensure that denizens of incorporated territory are granted full representation in Congress. Article IV, Section III of the Constitution says, "The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."

What's needed to secure the right to vote for those living in the territories is essentially just the political will to rectify it. And because politicians generally act in relation to their constituents' opinions, building public awareness of the injustice is crucial too. You have to "change the hearts and minds of Congress and the American public," Cartagena says.

"Voting rights in U.S. territories is a challenging political issue to solve," said Plaskett in an email to Mic. "As a member of Congress from the Virgin Islands, I must seize the opportunity to advance national awareness on these issues at every turn. That’s how we will get from where we are to where we want to be."

"It's very difficult to get people with power to divest themselves of that power."

Part of the difficulty in fighting for equal representation, Weare explains, is educating mainland Americans about the fact that these disparities even exist. He was born and raised in Guam before attending university in the mainland U.S., and he says his home territory is "out of sight, out of mind." Last year, Equally American filed a suit on behalf of three American Samoan nationals living in Utah for access to the polls, arguing that anyone born in a U.S. territory should be able to vote. But according to a 2016 appeals court ruling in D.C., the 14th Amendment guarantee of birthright citizenship does not apply to American Samoans.

That means that residents of American Samoa, which has the highest rate of military participation of any U.S. state or territory, have no say about the wars we enter into. And there's a connection between structural disenfranchisement in territories and the lived inequalities of those regions, Weare explains.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, many criticized the federal government's response as woefully, inhumanely inadequate. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted after the hurricane asked explicitly: "Do you think the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico would have been better, worse, or about the same if Puerto Rico was a state?" Sixty-one percent said that they thought statehood would have improved the emergency response on the island. When asked if they thought that rebuilding Puerto Rico was a priority for the U.S. federal government, 55% of respondents said no. Just three months before Hurricane Maria made landfall, an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans had voted for statehood — but the resolution was nonbinding.

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After the U.S. financial crisis, which could be felt in Puerto Rico as early as 2006, migration from the territory to the mainland U.S. increased; now, more Puerto Ricans live in the States than on the island. Cartagena sees the diasporic Puerto Ricans who are able to participate in U.S. state and federal elections as the keys to effect change for Puerto Rico. Public opinion of mainland Americans is on the side of Puerto Ricans: A 2019 Gallup poll found that 2 in 3 mainland Americans were in favor of statehood for the island.

Washington, D.C., isn't so lucky. Most mainland Americans aren't in favor of making the capital region the country's 51st state and giving real power to its three electoral votes, per a Gallup poll taken last summer. This means that, for the time being, voting members of Congress have no electoral incentive to grant independence to D.C. residents. A bill introduced by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), known as the Ranked Choice Voting Act, would change that, granting statehood to the territories and D.C. while changing over voting systems to one where voters list candidates in order of preference. Ranked choice voting would allow for "multiple options and multiple voices [and provide] the opportunity to vote honestly," Drew Spencer Penrose, the law and policy director at FairVote, tells Mic.

It's not likely that any territory will be able to call itself a state in the near future, though. For now, their delegate presence at this summer's nominating conventions will be residents' best opportunity to help decide who wins the presidency. After all, as Penrose says: "It's very difficult to get people with power to divest themselves of that power."