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.
There is an obvious and acknowledged denial of voting rights to U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. territories. Maybe Puerto Rico becoming a state someday will correct the Puerto Rican suffrage issue. But what about those U.S. territories that may never become a state? Will these U.S. citizens always be denied the right to vote?
As King put it “[a] right delayed is a right denied.” Even though the federal courts have posed this as a political question that they cannot decide and is best left to congressional legislation, the federal courts do have the power to declare unconstitutional this denial of equal protection of the laws, thus leaving the means of correction to the legislative branch.
Then politics comes into play again. Some argue that in the case of Puerto Rico, if its residents were to be granted the right to vote, then it would be a blue territory in favor of the Democratic Party. So the political fear is a preconceived notion that certain people will not vote a certain way and therefore they should be denied that very right to vote.
The argument also fails to recognize that states change from blue to red based on the person who is running and the effectiveness of the campaign. For example, Florida was red for George W. Bush but blue for Barack Obama. How can any political party think that it does not have to win the votes it needs? And a true and democratic election would require participation by all its citizens.
As we honor King and his accomplishments for the betterment of our country, we must remember that the civil rights movement is ongoing. As he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Denying U.S. citizens this fundamental right to vote must not be permitted to continue, because one vote denied under such circumstances is as if no true vote was taken at all.
Richard R. Robles is founder and past president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida. He is an attorney in Miami.