The Insular Cases

In addition to the Fifty States and Washington, D.C., the United States governs more than a dozen island territories. Many of these are not permanently inhabited, but five (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) have a total of 4.4 million permanent residents. This is roughly equivalent to the population of Kentucky. Puerto Rico alone has 3.7 million people, more than 21 out of the 50 States.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few years after the United States acquired these territories, the Supreme Court decided a series of cases on the application of U.S. law there. Known as the “Insular Cases,” these cases ruled that residents of the territories were not subject to the rights and protections of the U.S. Constitution, including the right to vote in federal elections.

Decided by the same Supreme Court Justice who had led the Plessy v. Ferguson or “Separate but Equal” ruling [internal link-Fed/State], the Insular Cases were filled with racist language, referring to natives of the territories as “alien races” and endorsing “the white man’s burden to bring up others in their image.” [http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5478/] Yet even though more than a hundred years have passed, these obsolete rulings still haven’t been repealed.

As a result, even though they are considered U.S. citizens, residents of the U.S. Island Territories have limited Constitutional rights. They can vote in Presidential elections, but their votes aren’t counted in the Electoral College. Likewise, while Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico have delegates in the House of Representatives, these delegates cannot vote in House decisions. None of the U.S. territories have representatives, voting or nonvoting, in the Senate.

The situation is even more difficult in American Samoa, whose 66,000 residents are officially classified not as American Citizens, but as American Nationals. As non-citizens, they are prohibited from voting in local or federal elections other than Samoa’s local elections. Even if they move to one of the 50 states, they will be unable to register to vote there unless they apply for citizenship as though they had been born outside the U.S.

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