Structural Disenfranchisement in US Territories Has Consequences

Oct 3, 2018
3:37 PM

By Pamela Lynn Colon

(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Like many Americans, I am riveted by the ongoing Senate debate over the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But unlike my fellow Americans, I am unable to vote for —or against— the President who nominated him. I also lack any representation in the Senate that will decide whether or not to confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination.

The reason: as a resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands, I am among nearly four million Americans living in U.S. territories (a population greater than 21 states) who are structurally disenfranchised from the political processes that have far-reaching consequences in our lives, simply because of where we live. My voting rights would be protected though if I lived in another U.S. territory or even a foreign country. The Supreme Court will consider whether to hear a case addressing this fundamental voting rights discrimination on October 5, and I am a plaintiff in that litigation.

To me, this is personal. As a female sexual assault survivor myself, I am outraged that I have no Senator to call to express my concern that a man credibly accused of sexual assault will spend the next 30 years sitting on the highest court of our country, ruling on cases that will affect every aspect of women’s lives for generations.

My father also recently passed away. As a World War II veteran, he could never understand how despite his service in defense of American democracy, his own daughter was being denied the right to vote.

Growing up in Illinois, I was always proud to be able to exercise my right to vote. In 1992, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, not realizing this would have any impact on my voting rights. Who would have thought that a change in address would result in becoming disenfranchised? Paradoxically, had I moved 18 miles away to the British Virgin Islands —or any other foreign country— my right to vote for President and voting representation in Congress would be protected by federal and state overseas voting laws. So too if I had moved to two other U.S. territories: the Northern Mariana Islands or American Samoa.

This kind of arbitrary discrimination isn’t just wrong.

I believe it is unconstitutional.

For many years living in the Virgin Islands I just accepted disenfranchisement as the price for getting to live in paradise. But as my son approached the age of 16, I began to speak with him and his friends about their obligations to register for the Selective Service when they reached the age of 18. Suddenly, it hit home. Although my son could be drafted into war, he would not have any right to select those who would declare such a war or his Commander-in-Chief if he was conscripted into such a war. I could not silently accept this. That is how I ended up deciding to join Segovia v. United States, a federal lawsuit seeking to expand voting rights in the territories that is being considered for review by the Supreme Court this week.

Once my son’s selective service obligation opened my eyes to the injustice of being denied the right to vote, I quickly saw other examples all around me. I realized that as a criminal defense attorney, I was representing Virgin Islanders charged with federal crimes who not only had no say in the laws they were accused of violating, but no political voice in the prosecutors bringing the charges or the judges presiding over their cases. This utter lack of democratic accountability simply cannot be squared with America’s principles of liberty and democracy.

If there was ever any doubt that a lack of voting rights in U.S. territories has consequences, the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricanes Irma and Maria provides a chilling case study. Investigative reports have shown how the federal government’s response fell far short of its response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Would the response to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands be any different if they had more than just two non-voting Delegates to Congress? Following Irma and Maria, President Trump sent dismissive and accusatory tweets as the tragedy continued to unfold. A year after the storms, he sent tweets disputing multiple independent reports that the death toll in Puerto Rico ranged in the thousands. Would it have made a difference if citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could vote for President?

Whether or not the Supreme Court grants review in Segovia v. United States, my hope is that the time has finally arrived to have a national conversation about the continued denial of voting rights to the nearly four million Americans who call the territories home. If ours is to be a government of, by, and for the people, every citizen must enjoy the right to vote, wherever they live.


Pamela Lynn Colon has been a resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1992 and is one of the plaintiffs in Segovia v. United States, which seeks to expand voting rights in U.S. territories.