Rodney Cruz was born an American citizen. He did a tour in Iraq during 10 years in the Army, and was wounded on the battlefield three times, eventually suffering a traumatic brain injury. His enlistment followed in the footsteps of many of his relatives, an unbroken line of military service. Five successive generations of his family have put their lives on the line for the country, but like four million other Americans in the U.S. territories, Cruz, as a resident of Guam, is constitutionally barred from voting in federal elections. But with some help from a brand-new legal platform, Cruz intends to change that. As the founder of the Iraq-Afghanistan Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific, Cruz is one of the lead plaintiffs in the Segovia v. Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners’ case, a lawsuit seeking to challenge the prohibition on residents of U.S. territories voting in federal elections. The suit is one of several recent legal challenges around the issue of voting rights, sovereignty, and citizenship in the U.S. territories. After the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled against the plaintiffs and denied a motion for summary judgment last year, the plaintiffs and a nonprofit voting-rights organization called We the People Project turned to crowdfunding to finance an appeal to the U.S. Seventh Circuit court.
The arguments in the Segovia case rely on a complex, confusing, and sometimes contradictory history of legal precedent regarding voting rights in the U.S. territories. The first and clearest pieces of precedent are that voting is that there is no explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution and that only citizens who are residents of U.S.states have both voting representation in Congress and via electors in the Electoral College. The matter of whether Congress can extend voting rights to the territories—or whether not doing so violates the Constitution—has often been disputed in court. Currently, the only legal way for citizens born in Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico to vote in federal elections is to move and change their residency to a state.
The strongest existing precedent on the legal status of the territories and voting therein comes from the “Insular Cases,” a series of Supreme Court decisions in the beginning of the 20th century pertaining to the country’s then-new territorial possessions. Those decisions were steeped in the colonialist and often racist legal logic of the era, with decisions referring to the “white man’s burden” and stating that the races were not created equal. They essentially held that the rights of citizenship, including voting, are not granted automatically to residents of the territories, and that territories are entities entirely dependent on Congress, which can grant or remove voting rights at will. (Though Congress, then as now, cannot revoke many basic constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens and non-citizens under the due-process clause.)