This week, the Supreme Court will consider a question concerning the voting rights of American citizens residing in U.S. territories – one that goes straight to our nation’s founding principles. Under federal and Illinois overseas voting laws, state citizens who move to a foreign country or to American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands are permitted to vote absentee in federal elections in Illinois – but not if they move to Guam, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. In our petition to the Supreme Court in Segovia v. United States, we argue that this disparate treatment – and the arbitrary denial of voting rights based on where you happen to live more generally – is irreconcilable with our most cherished values.
Our nation’s history provides important context for these arguments. In January 1766, William Pitt, who had recently returned to Parliament after a period of illness, rose to argue for the repeal of the notorious American Stamp Act that had passed in his absence. Among the appeals he made against the measure was to a basic sense of fairness. As he explained, the colonies were not England’s first foray into the exercise of dominion over foreign territory; and yet in past cases, as in the palatinate counties of Chester and Durham, “parliaments were ashamed of taxing people without their consent, and allowed them representatives.” The colonies – while not “being incorporated” with England – were entitled to the same rights. In short, the rights of the English subject should not depend on where he lived.
The arguments of Pitt and others won the day, and the Stamp Act was repealed. But a decade later America would have to declare its independence and fight a Revolutionary War to vindicate the principles he espoused.
Almost immediately the new nation had to confront the question of how to deal with a similar question: the representation of citizens residing in new territory that had not yet formalized its union with the country through statehood.