'I want to have a say': the 4 million US citizens without a vote

Citizens of US territories have been barred from voting for a president since the constitution was written

epa08787036 Polling station personnel prepare early voting boxes at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 30 October 2020. The highest electoral body of Puerto Rico is preparing, with the vote by mail and that of the hospitalized already underway, for the early voting Saturday and that of the prisoners on Sunday, in view of the general elections of 03 November.  EPA/Thais LLorca
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More than 4 million American citizens will not have a say in this year’s heated US presidential election because they live in United States territories.

Although they are directly affected by US policy, residents of these territories including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa, are not eligible to vote for a president. Citizens living in one of the 50 states also lose their right to cast a vote once they move to these territories, yet citizens living in foreign countries can vote via absentee ballot.

Sean Liphard, who moved from Washington DC to the island of St Thomas more than four years ago, calls the current system “offensive” and “unconstitutional”.

"I wasn't actually aware that I couldn't vote before I moved here," the 47-year-old, who works at the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, tells The National.

“I was surprised and very disappointed, especially since the last election and this one have been so critically important to the future of democracy in our nation.”

Anyone born in Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico is considered a US citizen. They can participate in the presidential primaries but not in the November 3 vote, unless they live in the US.

The exception is American Samoans, who are considered nationals of the US, not citizens. According to US law, being a national means you owe "permanent allegiance to the state", are under protection of the government and can travel to and live in the US, but cannot get an American passport or a job that requires citizenship, or vote in elections.

The reason residents of the US territories cannot vote in the presidential election is simply a historic one: because there was no provision for it in the Constitution that came into force in 1789. In the 1890s, the Supreme Court ruled that the territories belonged to the US but were “not a part” of the country.

Few Americans are aware of the issue, says Tappan Vickery, director of voting engagement at HeadCount, a voter registration group.

How the Electoral College system works

How the Electoral College system works

Even her organisation took some time to recognise there was an issue. “For a long time, like we weren't honestly even thinking about the people in the territories,” she says.

It was only after a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the States following the destruction of Hurricane Maria in 2017 that the organisation took note.

“We realised that this was a problem when our federal voter registration form that we rely on to do our work didn't actually support their voter registration process. It was very eye-opening to be honest, for us as an organisation. We realised we weren’t serving this population and we realised there was an immediate need to serve them.”

As a non-profit organisation, Headcount cannot campaign for the right to vote for the territories, but Ms Vickery believes there should at least be a dialogue about their representation.

“We need to make sure they know what their rights are and how they’re different to US state citizen rights so they can advocate for themselves and say they want to have change."

But the territories have been fighting for decades to win the right to vote for president. In 2000, the US government argued the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was not a state, and so did not have the constitutional right to vote for president.

“I have always wanted to vote in the election but now I want to more than ever,” says Puerto Rico resident Gustavo Rivera. “We have had so many disasters, such as hurricanes, and aid from the US has been so restricted, that I want to have a say in the election of the leader who decides our fate.

“We have really struggled over the past few years with having access to basic rights: clean water, enough food, somewhere safe to live,” the 28-year-old adds, “and it feels so unfair that we cannot vote for somebody who impacts our lives so much on an everyday basis.”

For those who are used to being able to vote in the elections, to have it stripped away because they have moved is a tough pill to swallow.

“Why shouldn't we get the same federal economic and political benefits as the rest of the country?” Mr Liphard says. “The current system is un-American and undemocratic. We're talking about colonialism here – the type of racist disenfranchisement that dates back to the 1900s. Clearly the laws should have been changed a long time ago.”

Professor Malik Sekou, chairman of the social and political sciences department at the University of the Virgin Islands, says the Virgin Islanders deserve full political power within the US system.

“No voting rights means colonialism. It is not fair,” Mr Sekou says. “All presidential elections are important. However this 2020 election cycle has grave repercussions based on the confluence of domestic and foreign challenges.”

US Virgin Islands residents are affected by Washington's domestic and foreign policies “in every way", he says.

“Frankly, racism in the continental US has always been a problem for us in the Virgin Islands but our concern is our need for more political power to protect our territorial interests and economic development.”

Mr Liphard says that the voting system has left him feeling “angry and frustrated”.

“Quite honestly, it's offensive and should be unconstitutional in my opinion,” he says. “It makes me feel helpless, like there is nothing I can do about it to make my voice heard. I'm a US citizen and should have the ability to vote for president, just like other US citizens.”