This morning the D.C. Circuit federal court heard important oral argument about the fundamental right to vote of persons born in the United States. That’s right—in Tuana v. United States, the federal court will decide whether U.S. nationals have the right to vote.
Like millions of U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico, millions of “nationals” born in the “unincorporated U.S. territories” in American Samoa and other Pacific Islands cannot vote in the elections of the country that governs their existence. The overwhelming majority are voters of color—and as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must wonder why any U.S. citizen or “national” governed by our laws and subject to our jurisdiction would be so flatly and unequivocally denied the fundamental right to vote.
Puerto Ricans living on the Island cannot vote in federal elections because they have only limited citizenship under the Jones Act of 1917. Yet they serve in the military and must abide by the laws of the United States. Puerto Rico is home to nearly 4 million Latino U.S. citizens who cannot vote to elect congressional representatives or the president. This Catch-22 can also be traced to a controversial series of Reconstruction-era Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, which created a doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for more than 4 million Americans living in “unincorporated U.S. territories” such as American Samoans. First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella argued at a Harvard Law School conference that “the Insular Cases should be soundly rejected because they represent the thinking of a morally bankrupt era in our history that goes against the most basic precept for which this nation stands: the equality before the law of all of its citizens.”