Flags of U.S. colonial territories
The right to vote in the United States does not include every U.S. citizen of voting age. I'm not talking about racist felon disenfranchisement
that keeps over 6 million voters off the rolls, or the latest efforts by state legislatures to restrict voting rights—like the one in Texas that was labelled as racist
by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or recent breaking news about voter suppression in North Carolina
I'm talking about laws that have been on the books in this country for over 100 years that keep citizens of U.S colonies (which we have dubbed "territories") from the full-rights of citizenship. This includes our internal colony of the District of Columbia, where citizens have only a non-voting representative, which was instituted in 1801. The results of this travesty can be seen in the Republican overlords' decision to override a reproductive rights law passed in the District of Columbia. This time the excuse is "religious liberty."
Jump below the fold for more.
Back in March of 2015, John Oliver did a brilliant segment about the issue of territorial disenfranchisement on "Last Week Tonight."
Salon covered Oliver's piece in John Oliver reveals the stunningly racist history behind why some U.S. territories can’t vote:
On Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver exposed the over 100-year-old racist ruling that decided that those born in the U.S. territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Norther Marianas — should not have the same constitutional rights as those born in the United States. In some cases this means that their vote does not count, and in other cases including American Samoa, nationals are not granted U.S. citizenship.
“I find that condescending and I’m British,” Oliver said of the ruling. “We basically invented patronizing bigotry.”
Oliver reminds viewers that over 4 million people — some of whom are U.S. military veterans — are not granted voting rights.
The Washington Post
gave more details
Residents of America's island territories can't vote because the Supreme Court found in a series of early 20th century decisions that they belonged to the United States but were "not a part" of the United States. The decisions also found the territories were inhabited by "alien races" who might not be able to understand Anglo-Saxon laws, so the U.S. Constitution didn't have to apply. The lead decision in one of the rulings was written by the justice who wrote the "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, Henry Billings Brown, and was intended to be temporary.
Oliver also pointed out some of the odd ways we refer to the territories and their residents as if they were foreign, like news reports that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is "the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants," and an instance when American Samoan Del. Eni Faleomavaega was introduced in Congress as the delegate from "American Somolia."
"There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding what the precise status of all the U.S. territories should be and what the people who live there would prefer, but surely, when it comes to denying Americans the right to vote, we have to find a better reason than citing a 100-year-old legal decision written by a racist that was always supposed to be temporary," Oliver said.
I have been a Puerto Rican rights activist since the late 1960s—well aware of Puerto Rico's colonial history and second-class status—and fought for DC Home Rule
and D.C. Statehood
when I was a resident, but I did not know the history of the "insular laws."
After reading Ben Norton's Why Can Citizens in US ‘Territories’ (Read: Colonies) Serve in the Military but Not Vote? Racism, I decided to look into the history of those "Insular Cases."
98.4% of the inhabitants of these colonies are considered “racial or ethnic minority populations,” according to the aforementioned census. In the 1901 Insular Cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the US colonies, which it referred to as “possessions,” were territories “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States,” as they were “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought.” Differing in “modes of thought” was the explicitly racist court’s polite way of saying “they are stupider than us because they are not white.”
The court therefore concluded that “the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible.” In other words, it claimed that these “alien races” would be unable to govern themselves and administer justice according to how white supremacists define it.
The judge who wrote the lead decision in the first of the rulings in this case was Henry Billings Brown, a white supremacist who also authored the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine that maintained racial apartheid in the US until it was overturned in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.
I am currently reading two books on this history.
The first is Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion, and the Constitution
. Here's the publisher's description
In this groundbreaking study of American imperialism, leading legal scholars address the problem of the U.S. territories. Foreign in a Domestic Sense will redefine the boundaries of constitutional scholarship.
More than four million U.S. citizens currently live in five “unincorporated” U.S. territories. The inhabitants of these vestiges of an American empire are denied full representation in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections. Focusing on Puerto Rico, the largest and most populous of the territories, Foreign in a Domestic Sense sheds much-needed light on the United States’ unfinished colonial experiment and its legacy of racially rooted imperialism, while insisting on the centrality of these “marginal” regions in any serious treatment of American constitutional history. For one hundred years, Puerto Ricans have struggled to define their place in a nation that neither wants them nor wants to let them go. They are caught in a debate too politicized to yield meaningful answers. Meanwhile, doubts concerning the constitutionality of keeping colonies have languished on the margins of mainstream scholarship, overlooked by scholars outside the island and ignored by the nation at large.
This book does more than simply fill a glaring omission in the study of race, cultural identity, and the Constitution; it also makes a crucial contribution to the study of American federalism, serves as a foundation for substantive debate on Puerto Rico’s status, and meets an urgent need for dialogue on territorial status between the mainland and the territories.
In the book, former Puerto Rico Supreme Court Justice José Trías Monge
"contends that the Insular Cases were based on premises that would be considered bizarre today," such as
—Democracy and colonialism are "fully compatible"
—There is "nothing wrong when a democracy such as the United States engages in the business of governing other" subjects that have not participated in their democratic election process
—People are not created equal, some races being superior to others
—It is the "burden of the superior peoples, the white man's burden, to bring up others in their image, except to the extent that the nation which possesses them should in due time determine"
The second book is The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire
, which the publisher discusses as follows:
When the United States took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam following the Spanish-American War, it was unclear to what degree these islands were actually part of the U.S. and, in particular, whether the Constitution applied fully, or even in part, to their citizens. By looking closely at what became known as the Insular Cases, Bartholomew Sparrow reveals how America resolved to govern these territories.
Sparrow follows the Insular Cases from the controversial Downes v. Bidwell in 1901, which concerned tariffs on oranges shipped to New York from Puerto Rico and which introduced the distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories, to Balzac v. Puerto Rico in 1922, in which the Court decided that Puerto Ricans, although officially U.S. citizens, could be denied trial by jury because Puerto Rico was "unincorporated." There were 35 Insular Cases in all, cases stretching across two decades, cases in which the Court ruled on matters as diverse as tariffs, double jeopardy, and the very meaning of U.S. citizenship as it applied to the inhabitants of the offshore territories. Through such decisions, as Sparrow shows, the Court treated the constitutional status of territorial inhabitants with great variability and decided that the persons of some territories were less equal than those of other territories.
Sparrow traces the fitful evolution of the Court's Incorporation Doctrine in the determination of which constitutional provisions applied to the new territories and its citizens. Providing a new look at the history and politics of U.S. expansion at the turn of the twentieth century, Sparrow's book also examines the effect the Court's decisions had on the creation of an American empire. It highlights crucial features surrounding the cases—the influence of racism on the justices, the need for naval stations to protect new international trade, and dramatic changes in tariff policy. It also tells how the Court sanctioned the emergence of two kinds of American empire: formal territories whose inhabitants could be U.S. citizens but still be denied full political rights, and an informal empire based on trade, cooperative foreign governments, and U.S. military bases rather than on territorial acquisitions.
American Samoa is currently the only one of our inhabited territories that does not have "birthright citizenship." A lawsuit, filed by American Samoan plaintiffs
, is currently working its way through the courts, but has little chance for success and is opposed by the Obama administration
Looking inside the U.S., we find our nation's oldest colony, the District of Columbia, which is also our nation's capital—much of it built by enslaved labor. The Residence Act
of 1790 placed the nation's capital in the South. The D.C. I knew as a resident was known as "chocolate city with vanilla suburbs," but that demographic has changed in recent years
. The DC statehood movement has been around for decades
The movement began in 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was passed, giving D.C. residents three electoral votes and the right to vote for president.
President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his nod to the statehood idea, but Congress — led by white Southern Democrats who wanted no part of black representation increasing in their chambers — resisted it, and Johnson, consumed with other domestic concerns, did not dig in on the matter. The district did eventually win home rule — allowing nominal control over local affairs — and in 1971 obtained the right to elect a nonvoting delegate to the House.
But statehood proponents have continued since then to lobby Congress, petition courts and hold rallies to advance their cause. In 2000, in a show of citywide pique, the district adopted a license plate that, instead of celebrating a bird or body of water, was stamped with the protestation “Taxation Without Representation.”
The history of enfranchisement for D.C. residents
has gone through several stages:
Residents of Washington, D.C., were also originally barred from voting for the President of the United States. This changed after the passage of the Twenty-third Amendment in 1961, which grants the District three votes in the Electoral College. This right has been exercised by D.C. citizens since the presidential election of 1964.
The District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973 devolved certain congressional powers over the District to a local government administered by an elected mayor, currently Muriel Bowser, and the thirteen-member Council of the District of Columbia. However, the Congress retains the right to review and overturn any of the District's laws. Each of the city's eight wards elects a single member of the council, and five members, including the chairman, are elected at large.
In 1980, District voters approved the call of a constitutional convention to draft a proposed state constitution, just as U.S. territories had done prior to their admission as states. The proposed constitution was ratified by District voters in 1982 for a new state to be called "New Columbia".
has a list of the popular myths about the district
MYTH #1: Most people in D.C. work for the government and the military.
Federal officials represent a small proportion of the District’s population. D.C. is home to almost 660,000 people of all backgrounds and occupations, and most have lived there for over 20 years. D.C.’s 120 vibrant neighborhoods each have their own rich, distinct cultural heritage.
MYTH #2: District residents don’t pay U.S. taxes but D.C. gets lots of federal money.
Washingtonians not only pay federal income taxes, they pay at the highest per-capita rate in the country. In addition, residents pay "statelike," or District taxes—which must be approved by Congress. Eight states receive more federal funds as a percentage of their budgets than D.C.
MYTH #3: D.C. citizens enjoy the same rights as other Americans.
Although Washingtonians pay federal income taxes, fight in America’s wars and serve on its juries, they have no voting representation in Congress. Also, unlike anywhere else in the country, Congress must approve the local budget and every local law.
MYTH #4: Proximity to the Capitol boosts influence of D.C. residents.
In the age of global communications, proximity does not mean access. Most federal officials know more about their home districts or international affairs than about local D.C. issues.
MYTH #5: D.C. is too small to have representation.
Washington, D.C. is 63 square miles and has a larger population than Wyoming and Vermont. All states—regardless of size—have equal representation in the Senate.
MYTH #6: D.C. is treated differently because it belongs to all Americans.
The area around the National Mall—a very small portion of the District—is home to Congress, the White House and other national landmarks. However, D.C. is mostly made up of 120 unique neighborhoods that tourists never see. Eight states have a higher percentage of federal land ownership than Washington, D.C.
The right to vote is a fundamental part of what Democrats today talk of when we stand up for democracy. FairVote
has proposed and is fighting for a constitutional amendment
to guarantee the right to vote.
What the group has proposed includes those people disenfranchised by living in U.S. territories and in the District of Columbia. Find out more about the effort today.