U.S. Virgin Islands Get Locked Out Of Election Day

There are many aspects of the U.S. presidential election process that raises some existential questions about our nation. Why don't we directly elect the leaders of our country? Why is the election so damn long? But some are a bit simpler: can residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands vote in presidential elections?

Simply put, the Electoral College makes no allowance for citizens living in U.S. territories, like the U.S. Virgin Islands, and as a result, they are not participants in the presidential election. However, primaries, which are conducted by private parties, can permit U.S. Virgin Islanders to have a chance to vote. When primary races are particularly hard-fought, candidates sometimes even make serious efforts to win over Virgin Islanders. In the Democratic primary, for example, Bill Clinton campaigned for Hillary in the Virgin Islands, which she swept, while her opponent Bernie Sanders focused his attempts on wooing Puerto Ricans (who also cannot vote in the general presidential election).

Mere primary participation is not enough, though, for the many residents of these territories who are frustrated with the lack of representation in many federal issues. Islanders also lack a voting representative in Congress. In response to both issues, the We the People Project is using lawsuits and activism to advocate for tangible political representation for these Americans.

Why can't residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands vote? In a recent segment on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explored the racist history of this exclusion, noting that 98 percent of Virgin Islanders are people of color and citing old Supreme Court decisions that called them "alien races."

"I find that condescending," he said, "and I'm British. We basically invented patronizing bigotry."

Despite the racist history of excluding territorial residents from the vote, many Americans are fighting to ensure that Virgin Islanders are one day able to participate in elections. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke out about this issue during the presidential primary races:

... the four million people who live in the territories are not the subjects of a king. They are Americans. They live in America. But their interests will never be fully represented within our government until they have full voting rights just like every other American.

With the exception of some talk about the Puerto Rican debt crisis earlier in this summer, political issues in American territories have not been considered a major campaign issue this year. All of that could change by 2020, though, if officials like Sen. Warren and groups like We the People continue to advocate for territorial voting rights.