The time is more than 100 years overdue for the unincorporated territories of the United States to have the rights of full citizenship – including the ability to vote for president – witnesses told a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
“We ask Congress to act so that citizens in the territories who cannot vote for president and lack voting representation in Congress can finally have their voices heard. It is the right thing to do, the moral thing to do and in 2020 it is long overdue,” said attorney Neil Weare of Guam, founder and president of Equally American, a non-partisan civil rights organization that works to advance equality and voting rights in U.S. territories.
Weare was joined by V.I. Delegate Stacey Plaskett and her counterparts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico at the virtual hearing of the Committee on House Administration Elections Subcommittee, discussing voting rights and election administration in the U.S. territories.
“One cannot discuss voting rights and disenfranchisement in the territories without talking about racism. The unincorporated territory of the Virgin Islands of the United States [a possession] is the most structural example of systemic racism,” Plaskett, reading from written testimony, said. “That system permeates the legal status as well as the economic, political and educational structure that keeps the disparity between us and the mainland – it manifests itself as a position of exclusion of the people living in the Virgin Islands from equitable treatment.”
Plaskett was instrumental in achieving the hearing – the first to be held exclusively on territorial voting rights, according to Weare. It was initially scheduled for last September as a field hearing on St. Croix but was derailed by Hurricane Dorian.
Plaskett’s testimony and that of her fellow delegates were embraced by subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH).
“I for one am with you. Just tell me what I need to do, and I will do the best I can to ensure that we do the right thing,” Fudge said.
Subcommittee member Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) agreed, telling the panel, “I hope I’m here long enough to see the day you will have full voting rights in the Congress of the United States.”
Plaskett said a simple step toward that end would be to convene a bipartisan congressional task force to put into the record the effects of no voting rights on the territories and present it to Congress along with recommendations for action, as she outlined in the For the People Act of 2019, a bill to address voter access among other issues.
While subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) criticized that measure as being buried in a 600-page bill with “too many other things” in it, he commended Plaskett for advocating for a task force, though later persisted in asking whether the territories are up to the task of managing federal elections.
“My colleagues see something sinister around every corner,” Fudge said in response, adding that the ability to run elections has nothing to do with the right to vote for president and that she would support making the task force portion of the bill its own standalone legislation.
In fact, most Americans have no idea that territorial residents do not have equal rights, said Dr. Gwen-Marie Moolenaar, president of the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands, who joined retired V.I. educator Gerard Emanuel as a witness at the hearing. John Abramson Jr., former supervisor of Elections for the Virgin Islands, contributed written testimony along with a number of others, including the current Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes.
Asked by subcommittee member Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) what she felt Americans need to know about voting in the territory, Moolenaar was succinct in her answer.
“I think that the vast majority of Americans are completely unaware of the inequities that are thrown to our citizens in the territories,” including the delegate’s limited power in Congress, Moolenaar said. “I think most Americans would be shocked to know that indeed these conditions exist. And those Americans from the mainland who do come to our territory come up to the rude awaking that they could not vote for the president until they flew back to the mainland as if there is something tainted of the place, of the territories.”
That unequal status was conferred by the Insular Cases, a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions in the early 1900s that validated the full extension of U.S. sovereignty to overseas territories without requiring the full extension of constitutional rights.
The Insular Cases – defended by the last three presidential administrations – are inherently racist and “have created a near-permanent colonial status in the territories,” Plaskett said, despite a population of some four million that is greater than the five smallest states combined.
“Do you know what it is like to see a bill related to your people, your constituents and not be able to vote on it?” Plaskett said.
“This lack of equal representation and equal voting power has a direct correlation to persistent poverty across all of the U.S. territories,” the delegate said in her written testimony. “Americans in the territories are accustomed to being last in line for hurricane relief, for COVID-19 equipment, for basic health care, education and more. All five territories have a significantly lower per-capita income than any state yet are subject to arbitrary eligibility barriers and funding caps that limit their poorest residents’ access to much-needed federal benefits like Medicaid and SSI, formulas for roads and education.”
Yet, despite these inequities, territorial residents continue to provide an outsize service to the U.S. military, Plaskett and her fellow witnesses noted. In fact, when they became citizens 10 years after the 1917 purchase of their islands by the U.S., “Virgin Islanders came to Washington and petitioned, pleaded, for the ability to be part of the draft,” said Plaskett. “Virgin Islanders, like the other territories, serve and give the ultimate sacrifice in far greater number per-capita than those Americans on the mainland. We want the responsibility, not just the privileges.”
Asked by Butterfield what her fellow lawmakers can do, Plaskett urged Congress to “remove the barriers and the disparity in treatment of the territories in terms of funding, so that we can grow our economies and our population to be able to come on par and move towards a more equitable position to demand either inclusion or independence.”
If more Americans were aware of these inequities, said Moolenaar, she believes “there would be an upswell of individuals to support the claims that we are making in the territories that we need to be given our full rights as citizens, because we are behaving as full citizens, going to war, paying taxes.”
Tuesday’s hearing was livestreamed and can be viewed at the YouTube link above. The written testimony can be found here.