This month we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment and accomplishments for equality — including voting rights — during the civil-rights movement. Even though great voting rights accomplishments have been achieved over the decades, injustices still exist. U.S. citizens residing in American territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Samoa are denied the right to vote for president. The premise is that these territories are not states of the union, and therefore, U.S. citizens residing in these territories must be denied the right to vote. But a U.S. citizen, for example, residing in, say, North Korea, under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, will still maintain his or her right to vote. This is the same for any other country that the citizen moves to as long as they resided in a state of the union prior to moving. However, a U.S. citizen who was born in a territory will never have the right to vote as long as they are a resident of that or another U.S. territory.
An immigrant can become a naturalized U.S. citizen and, once doing so, will have the right to vote for president of the United States, but a U.S. citizen born in the United States will not have the right to vote if they reside in a U.S. territory.
In the case of Puerto Rico, the argument has been made that Puerto Rico can simply become a state. That argument attempts to draw this injustice into the political realm. This is not a political issue but a constitutional one.
Puerto Rico has three main political parties, each vying for its own political cause. Each party has a distinct position on what Puerto Rico’s status should be. But this political debate on status has no bearing on the underlying right to equality being denied under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Still, constitutional arguments continue to be deflected in the federal courts. And the pretext is that the mechanism for correcting this inequality is through statehood. This pretext is fundamentally flawed.