Why U.S. Territory Residents Can't Vote for Prez

As Election Day approaches, many U.S. residents opine that their vote doesn't really count — especially if they live in a very red or very blue state. However, perhaps such people should consider that the residents of U.S. territories are not allowed to vote. Period. So, if you live in Guam or American Samoa (which has the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory), you can't actually cast your ballot for president. The 4 million people who live in U.S. territories are not able to vote in the presidential election. Even though, just like Americans who live stateside, whoever is elected will make decisions that influence their lives.

The United States has five permanently inhabited U.S. territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. These territories have complicated legal and political structures in their relationships with the Unites States. Citizens of these territories have U.S. citizenship, except for American Samoa, which was again denied the right to birthright citizenship in a recent lawsuit. They send non-voting representatives to Congress, meaning they have a voice in the House of Representatives, but those representatives cannot participate in voting on the passage of bills. They have no representation in the Senate.

The residents of these U.S. territories can vote in the primaries, so they are allowed a say in determining the candidates. However, they cannot cast their vote in the general election.

So, why is it that people who live in U.S. territories can not vote for president? It has a lot to do with a series of rulings in the early 1900s called the Insular Cases. These rulings determined how the newly acquired foreign territories would be regarded in the eyes of the U.S. government. It dictated that the residents of these territories would only received limited constitutional rights, voting not being one of them. Many have criticized the ruling as outdated and having racist origins, and have pointed to the fact that it was only supposed to be temporary. But more than 100 years later, this restriction still remains.

Perhaps the oddest caveat of American election laws was best explained earlier this year by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She said that if a person living in Guam was to move to California, they would automatically gain the right to vote. If that same person moved from California to Italy, as an American citizen living abroad they again would still retain the right to vote. But if they returned home to Guam, that right to vote would disappear. It's a convoluted system, to say the least. Warren said:

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.

The residents of U.S. territories will still be forced to sit on the sidelines on Nov. 8, but there is sure to be continued debate over their voting status over the next four years.