Voting Rights for Puerto Rico

The Natural Resources Committee examined H.Res. 279, the Insular Cases Resolution. The discussion was about the Insular Cases, a set of decisions made by the Supreme Court regarding Puerto Rico and other territories of the United States. However, the question of voting rights came up. Do the Insular Cases affect voting rights for the territories?

One of the claims made by Resolution 279 is that “the territorial incorporation doctrine established by the Insular Cases is still used to perpetuate the second-class treatment of Americans living in the territories, from the denial of citizenship, to the denial of voting rights, to the denial of equality in Federal benefits programs.”

In fact, although there are many negative consequences to being an unincorporated territory, the Insular Cases don’t cause the lack of voting rights.

The Insular Cases’ attitudes should be repudiated

Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, said that the attitudes found in the Supreme Court decisions in the Insular cases were “abhorrent.” In fact, most of the witnesses used the same word, and we agree. Modern Americans would never use the language found in the decisions, and we would not tolerate the ideas expressed.

Gonzalez-Colon went on to say, “It is not the Insular Cases that deny the residents of the territories voting representation; Articles I and II of the Constitution do. It is not the Insular Cases that have denied equality in Federal programs; it has been Congress who has done that.”

She went on to point out that the Territorial Clause is the source of the inequality Puerto Rico faces. “Even if equal treatment is extended to a territory, it can be withdrawn.”

The Insular Cases may perpetuate their abhorrent attitudes,though. “One of the important consequences of the Insular Cases was creating this view that it’s essentially okay for the United States have colonies and not to do anything about it,” said Neil Weare, President, Equally American. He argued that repudiating the Insular Cases would have the benefit of “…disrupting a status quo which has been in place for far too long and fully bringing to the table all the different parties that have equity and stakes in these decisions.”

Another hearing

A different hearing brought up the question of voting rights more appropriately. This was the Natural Resources Committee’s hearing on the status of Puerto Rico.

In the hearing on HR 1522 and HR 2070, Governor Pierluisi made this statement:

“This urgent issue comes before the Committee at a time when the United States is engaged in a great national debate over voting, the most important right we have to shape our political destiny. This hearing adds to that debate the fact that twenty-one years into the twenty-first century, in the United States, approximately 3.1 million U.S. citizens—the majority of whom are Hispanic and bilingual and, as such, ethnic and linguistic minorities within the United States— have no domestic legally recognized right to vote for their country’s President and Vice President or any voting representation in the House or Senate. In Puerto Rico’s case, this is not about the mechanism of voting but the denial of that right altogether.”

He went on to say, “The right to vote, to participate in politics, and to shape the direction of the democracy we share and to which all Americans have a duty of loyalty and a responsibility to support are internationally recognized as fundamental human rights. These rights are among the most important human rights because, through them, citizens are able to hold their governments accountable and help shape government policies.

“These rights constitute an acknowledgment that people are entitled to be masters of their fate by participating directly in the decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. Securing and protecting these rights are the keystone for a system in which all other human rights are respected.”

Governor Pierluisi was referring to the vote on November 3rd, which put him in office and which also included a vote on Puerto Rico’s status. The third vote in the 21st century, this referendum showed that a clear majority of Puerto Rico’s voters chose statehood as the political status for Puerto Rico.

Congress should have responded to this vote by taking action. HR 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Bill, will respect the vote and admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state. Congress has a duty to take action on this vote. Let your representatives know that you want them to take this action.

It is a chance to be on the right side of history.

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