In his speech last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, President Obama described the right to vote as the “foundation stone of our democracy.” For Americans living in the U.S. territories, these stirring words ring hollow. Nearly 4 million Americans call Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa home – a combined population greater than 22 states. We represent those Americans in the U.S. House, but cannot vote for their interests on the House floor. Our constituents are denied representation in the U.S. Senate. And they are barred from the general election for president and vice president. Thus, when the presidential vote is tabulated in 2016, it will be as if the 4 million Americans we represent do not exist.
There is a time, however, when our people are counted: when the country goes to war. Historically, the territories have had among the highest rates of military service in the nation. Our constituents have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq over 30,000 times since Sept. 11, 2001, and about 120,000 military veterans live in the territories. Yet none are allowed to cast a ballot to choose their commander-in-chief.
The president’s speech reminded Americans in the territories of our unequal status, but it also gave us reason for hope. As Mr. Obama said: “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”