Maria Elena Perez and Nikki Rojas unpack why Americans living in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, only have the right to vote during the primary elections.
[DELEGATE STACEY PLASKETT]: As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act, I want to once again call to the attention of my colleagues here in Congress that there are still American citizens today who do not have equal voting rights. These are citizens of American island territories: the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Marianas. While we may discuss the irrational and truly illogical mechanisms which has excluded those from who have been convicted of felons from society for voting, I want to discuss another group which has been disenfranchised. That is some 4 million people to be exact. These are American island territories, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Marianas. American citizens who willingly risk life and limb in defense of a great nation for which they do not have a vote.
[PULL QUOTE INTRO]
[MARIA]: On the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, the non-voting delegate to Congress from the U.S. Virgin Islands, spoke out against the lack of voting rights of Americans living in overseas territories. This week, we take a look at the nearly 4 million Americans who are disenfranchised simply for living in one of America’s island territories.
[MARIA]: I’m Maria Elena Perez.
[NIKKI]: And I’m Nikki Rojas. We’re the hosts of America the Voiceless.
[MARIA]: We believe all Americans have a voice, but too many Americans face roadblocks when it comes to casting their vote. America the Voiceless looks into the barriers many Americans have to overcome to make sure their voices heard during the voting process.
[NARRATION & INTERVIEW]
[NIKKI]: Almost four million Americans currently reside in the island territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Marianas. These residents are full-fledged American citizens with two major exceptions: they can’t vote in presidential elections and don’t have any real representative power in Congress.
[MARIA]: To make matters worse, residents living in American Samoa are not even given U.S. citizenship. American Samoans are known as U.S. nationals, which means they can’t vote in any elections even if they do move to one of the 50 states.
[NIKKI]: On this week’s episode of America the Voiceless, we’re diving into the racist laws that led to so many American citizens being disenfranchised and how these American citizens are fighting for their right to vote. We spoke to Neil Weare, the president and founder of Equally American, an advocacy organization fighting for equal rights and representation for Americans living in the U.S. territories.
[MARIA]: We also spoke with Puerto Rican Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, a board member of Equally American and head of Polivox78, a public policy and communications consulting firm. Neil and Gretchen broke just how nearly 4 million Americans have been disenfranchised and the legal fights Equally American has taken on to dismantle the racist insular cases.
[NEIL]: This, uh, ongoing disenfranchisement, which now for places like Puerto Rico and Guam has lasted over 120 years, was grounded in a series of really racist Supreme court decisions known as the insular cases, uh, decided by the same court that decided Plessy Ferguson, which established a legal justification for racial segregation. The insular case is established as doctrine of territorial incorporation, where so-called quote unquote unincorporated territories would not have the same constitutional rights, uh, that other, uh, Americans enjoyed. And also that there would be no promise of eventual, full political participation in the United States, essentially signing off on a quasi colonial status that never needed to be resolved by the political branches.
[NIKKI]: Just how racist were these Supreme Court decisions, you ask? Documentary film The Insular Empire explores America’s role as a colonial power and how racism played a huge role in how the country obtained and continues to rule its colonies.
[01:29-01:52]: “The United States flag is flying over these lands and so some people said well doesn't that mean American laws apply. In 1901, the insular cases, basically the judgment of the Supreme Court was that the new territories were inhabited by quote alien races and they may not be able to understand anglo-saxon laws. Therefore, the Constitution doesn't have to apply.”
[MARIA]: Neil explained that the Supreme Court had the chance to overrule the insular cases, but opted not to. In June, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, which has near-total authority over the island’s budget and finances. By upholding the board, the highest court in the land avoided the opportunity to overrule the insular cases.
[NIKKI]: Gretchen noted that the insular cases represent a systematic racism at play in American politics. While the Supreme Court had the chance to overrule the insular cases, Congress also has the chance to take action but has failed to do so.
[GRETCHEN]: These days we're talking constantly about systematic racism. And if there ever was systematic racism was in the, um, in the passing of the insular cases. And, and the fact that the use of the answer cases as precedent for every decision that has been made till till now, in which the constitution does not apply to the territories in its totality. And therefore Congress can take actions that are, would be deemed unconstitutional in the States, but they can do just on the basis of the insular cases. And so it's really frustrating for, um, um, for people in the 50 States, not to realize that the people of the territory are subjects of systematic racism.
[MARIA]: Thankfully, organizations like Equally American have taken on legal fights to do the work Congress and the Supreme Court fail to do. Neil spoke to us about the latest lawsuit spearheaded by Equally American, which was filed on behalf of six residents of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lead plaintiff Randy Reeves, an Air Force veteran, was essentially stripped of his voting rights when the Federal Aviation Administration sent him to Guam.
[NEIL]: We just filed an exciting new federal voting rights lawsuit, uh, in Hawaii, uh, Reeves versus United States on behalf of residents of Guam, uh, and the us Virgin islands, who'd be able to vote for president by absentee ballot if they lived literally anywhere else in the world, including if they lived on the U S international space station, um, under federal and state overseas voting laws. If, if you, uh, move away from a state, you maintain absentee voting rights to vote for president and voting members of Congress. Um, and even if you move to certain us territories, you maintain those rights, but not if you moved to other disfavor territories. And so the lawsuit raises an equal protection challenge that says, uh, when Congress or States expand voting rights in this way, they need to do it in a way that's fair and equitable, and they can't pick and choose which citizens are going to have these voting rights.
[MARIA]: Neil was emphatic that this disenfranchisement is, simply put, an insult to America’s veterans.
[NEIL]: It's an insult it's absurd. Um, Randy Reeves, our lead plaintiff and Reeves versus United States, uh, he, uh, uh, enlisted and the, the us air force, uh, was stationed in Germany on the front lines during the cold war. And then after that was actually a civilian contractor for the department of defense as, uh, the wall between West and East Germany was being torn down. And while he was there, he voted by absentee ballot and his former state of residence, um, later on then in life, after he was retired from the military and working for the federal aviation administration, he was transferred from Hawaii to Guam where he's now lived for almost 20 years. And as a result of that transfer of federal service, he now can't vote for president he's now disenfranchised when it comes to voting representation in Congress, despite his military service, and despite serving in the federal government and basically going, you know, where they transferred and assigned him to. Um, and, and that was, and that's just the kind of, uh, situation that these federal and States overseas voting laws were meant to address was to ensure that people did not become disenfranchised, um, based on moving outside the States, either for military service or other federal service, even just for business or educational opportunities abroad.
[NIKKI]: Unfortunately, Mr. Reeves is hardly the only veteran or U.S. military personnel to be affected by these archaic and racist laws. Neil noted that military service rates in the territories are higher than in the 50 states. By virtue of living in the territories, these service men and women are stripped of the constitutional rights they vowed to protect.
[NEIL]: So military service is something that has a proud tradition in history in each of the territories. And it's one of many reasons that, uh, everyone who lives in Guam and the other territories should have the right to vote just like other Americans.
[NEIL]: Military service rates in the territory tend to be much higher than anywhere else in the United States. Um, and unfortunately that also means that casualty rates in the territories are also correspondingly higher.
[NEIL]: There's more than a hundred thousand veterans that actually live in the territory. So we're disenfranchised. Um, and this, this isn't just about, um, you know, the voting rights is some kind of symbolic, uh, issue. It actually has real world consequences.
[MARIA]: Military service members and veterans living in the territories aren’t just disenfranchised, they also face immense obstacles to receive the medical care they so desperately deserve and need. Neil explained that veterans living in Guam who may need treatment for post traumatic stress disorder – or PTSD – are forced to travel all the way to Hawaii to get any kind of support.
[NIKKI]: That’s awful. The last thing a person suffering from PTSD needs is to be ripped away from their family, friends and support group when they’re getting help for their mental health issues. A new environment with no support system just spells disaster.
[MARIA]: The Reeves case isn’t the only lawsuit Equally American has been working on. The organization’s lawsuit on behalf of American Samoan John Fitisemanu sought to have him recognized as a natural-born U.S. citizen. Despite living in Utah and paying taxes for 20 years, Fitisemanu’s status as U.S. national has deprived him from the right to vote in local, state and federal elections.
[NIKKI]: Last December, a district court recognized that Fitisemanu is a natural born citizen, paving the way for him to register to vote. But the U.S. federal government had other ideas. The district court later stayed its ruling pending appeal, blocking him from registering to vote. In September, the Department of Justice argued that the 10th Circuit of Appeals should reverse the landmark decision.
[MARIA]: While American Samoans fight to be recognized as U.S. citizens, many Puerto Ricans are pushing to gain statehood. The movement for statehood has gained popularity as the island is struck by financial crises, poor management and deadly natural disasters. Gretchen, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, explained the evolution of this movement and why it’s gained momentum.
[GRETCHEN]: Before the fiscal crisis, before the, uh, the stage that Puerto Rico is on, um, before I would say 1996 before they took the corporate tax credit that led us into recession. Um, Puerto Rican politics consume Puerto Ricans by and large attention was paid by Puerto Ricans and always happened to what was going on in Washington, but not, uh, with the same interests that we do now. And the difference is so much hangs on what Washington decides these days. You know, we had a fiscal crisis that led to a control board that was established by Washington. We have had a series of natural recess, or is that are dependent on assistance provided by Washington. And right now we're in a presidency that has been very unfair and, um, and punishing to Puerto Rico. And therefore we are looking with eyes to Washington. And so it's become very clear that not being able to vote, uh, has had real repercussions.
[NIKKI]: Puerto Ricans definitely turned to Washington after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September 2017. The Category 4 storm destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 2,975 people. But the Trump administration was slow to provide any real relief.
[MARIA]: During President Donald Trump's visit to the island, he claimed Puerto Rico had severely impacted the nation’s budget and even had the audacity to tell local leadership that they should be “very proud” of the low death count.
[00:34-01:19]: “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that's fine, we've saved a lot of lives. If you look at the every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering. Nobody's ever seen anything like this. Now what is your what is your death count as at this moment 17? “16 people. certified.” “16 people versus in the thousands you can be very proud.”
[NIKKI]: As if Trump’s comments weren’t enough, the president then decided that throwing paper towels at a crowd gathered in San Juan was the appropriate response to a natural disaster. Now, three years after the deadly storm ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump is once again touting his commitment to the island and its people.
[MARIA]: Yup. More than 1,000 days after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in ruins, Trump pledged more than $13 billion in federal disaster funding to repair Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and educational infrastructure. His promise conveniently came just weeks before Americans head to the polls to elect the nation’s next president.
[NIKKI]: Of course, he’s not the only one. In September, Democratic nominee Joe Biden made his bigest appeal for the Puerto Rican vote. Biden pushed against Trump’s claim that he was “the best thing to happen to Puerto Rico” by claiming the president fails to remember that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
[06:45-07:14]: “I’m running to be president of all Americans, including 3 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. I’m not going to steal the money that is desperately needed to reconstruct the island, in order to build a wall that does nothing to keep Americans safe. I’m not going to suggest that we sell or trade Puerto Rico. I’m not going to throw paper towels whose lives have been devastated by the hurricane.”
[MARIA]: As the presidential nominees fight for Puerto Ricans’ votes, Gretchen noted that they would be smart to avoid grouping Puerto Ricans with other Latinx people. While we all share a culture, Gretchen made the valid point that Puerto Ricans’ concerns are better aligned with those living in other U.S. territories than those who come from Latin American countries.
[GRETCHEN]: And then as Latinos, you know, we had share much more in common with the people in Guam and the Pacific, then we share with the Colombians in Miami. And so, um, I think our issues should be revisited that way. And when you look at the Biden plan for Puerto Rico, a lot of the issues, they deal with our territorial issues. Although people think of us as Latinos, because we happen to be Latinos. So there's this, you know, there's this dichotomy going on. That's not really being recognized by politicians at large.
[NIKKI]: Gretchen also talked to us about what Americans in the states should know about citizens living in U.S. territories.
[GRETCHEN]: Something as basic as including the territories in the history books and, and, and saying the word colony, whether it's in the press, whether it's, um, on, on media, whether it's in Congress, I have, um, people in Congress, if you notice we'll not use the word either. And I have asked about it, I've been told, no, we just don't use it because it's controversial. So just language matters. It's things as simple as that.
[MARIA]: Neil warned that politicians shouldn’t take Americans from the overseas territories for granted. He noted that those who have moved to the 50 states typically live in competitive swing states, which we all know will be vital in the 2020 election.
[NEIL]: There's a territorial diaspora living throughout the United States of over 4 million citizens with ties to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the other territories
[NEIL]: You know, many of them live in very competitive swing States. So more than a million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, a lot of Virgin Islanders live in Florida. Um, States like Pennsylvania, um, you know, even States like Georgia and these voters have a lot of power that that's a date really hasn't been realized. Um, but if the territory diaspora were actually to flex its political muscles around these issues and others, uh, we have there actually be a lot more opportunity for, for positive change.
[NEIL]: This is an issue that concern should concern every American. Um, one, one group of Americans is discriminated against or denied the right to vote. That's something that's a threat to our entire country. Uh, you know, who we are as a country, uh, based on a foundation of democracy and consent of the governed and no American community would accept, uh, being dictated to under a federal law. Um, but not having a say in what that federal law was, or being required to pay federal taxes, but not having a say in how those tax funds were spent. And so just as no other American community would accept this, uh, neither should, uh, citizens in the territories have to. And that's where, um, wherever someone happens to live, um, they can vote on these issues. They can raise these issues to their elected officials to raise awareness about this. And as legislation moves forward, hopefully in the next Congress to address these issues, um, stand up for these marginalized disenfranchised Americans, just as one would stand up for other marginalized disenfranchised groups.
[NIKKI]: Both Neil and Gretchen stressed that Americans who can vote should exercise their constitutional right to do so and should not take that right for granted. They also called on American voters to use their voting power to make sure that no American is disenfranchised.
[NEIL]: I think what they should know is that, you know, their, their vote, uh, people going to vote for president, uh, throughout the United States, their vote counts and, um, the vote of citizens in the territory doesn't count. And so, you know, all the more reason to cherish the voting rights, you do have make sure you do register, get out to vote, um, because, uh, many throughout history have fought for your voting rights. And in fact, there are remains citizens, uh, including those in the territories and other situations who continue to be denied their voting rights. And so it's something to cherish and take seriously and, and to exercise because if you're silent, um, you do not have the kind of personal power and community power that's really needed to ensure, uh, that government is responsive to your needs and your community's needs.
[GRETCHEN]: I think it's extremely important to teach children and young adults the importance of the vote and why voting every four years or in our family every two years, because we vote in midterms of that is as important as going to your dentist for a checkup. You know, it should be part of your routine in this case, part of your civic routine, uh, and what you should be as an American citizen, or as a citizen of the role. You didn't have to tie it to a country. In my case, in particular, when I vote, I am voting for Puerto Rico. So when I look at a candidate, my primary issue, and I have many, many areas of interest is what will this precedent do for Puerto Rico? Is this a person that will work for Puerto Rico? And if that president works for project, he goes, I can assure you that person is going to be working for the other territories as well, because our issues are so intertwined.
[NIKKI]: Thank you for joining us for this episode of America the Voiceless. Join us next week as we discuss the barriers faced by millions of Americans with disabilities who want to exercise their voting rights.
[NIKKI]: A special thank you to our podcast producer Willis Polk, audio engineer Phil Williams and the rest of The North Star staff.
[MARIA]: This podcast is brought to you by The North Star, an independent media site fully supported by our members on TheNorthStar.com. If you’re not already a member, we’d love for you to subscribe so you can support our work. You can catch a fresh episode of America the Voiceless every Thursday on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.