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Boston Herald

Citizens' Right To Elect Prez Must Be Everyone's Territory

By Orlando Vidal

October 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

When millions of our fellow citizens are exercising their fundamental right to vote Tuesday, millions of others, also Americans, are denied the same right because they live in one of our country's territories.

Almost 4.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa today do not enjoy the same right to choose the next president and vice president of the United States. This is discrimination plain and simple.

In fact, the doctrine of "separate but equal" is alive and well in the treatment our nation still accords our citizens in these places. The day soon will come when Congress and the administration (and, if they do not act, then the courts) will have to address this grave injustice, along with the lack of voting representation in Congress by the District of Columbia and the territories. It is a matter of civil rights.

Indeed, the treatment of our citizens in the territories and in our nation's capital represents the unfinished business of American democracy.

That our nation discriminates against those in the territories should be of serious concern to all. Consider this: Even well- informed people are generally unaware of, and shocked by, how upon moving to any of the territories, citizens from the mainland immediately lose the right to cast absentee ballots in their former states of residence.

Now, I could move to France temporarily for work - or even move there permanently. Under our present law, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, I would still retain the right to request an absentee ballot and to cast my vote for president and vice president in my former state of residence. But this is not so were I to move to a U.S. territory. Upon moving to Puerto Rico, for example, New Yorkers, Floridians, Californians and all other mainlanders lose the right to cast absentee ballots.

Under this scheme, people living abroad, even those who have no intention of returning, have more rights to pick our leaders than U.S. citizens living here. This is wrong.

U.S. citizens living in the territories, had they had the right to cast absentee ballots in their former states of residence, could have made a big difference last time around, when elections in several states were decided by the narrowest of margins. Counting their votes, either President Bush would have also won the popular vote or Al Gore would have been president.

If U.S. citizens living in the territories had the right, this time around, to cast absentee ballots in their former states of residence, they also might make a big difference in this election.

U.S. citizens living in the territories deserve the right to vote. They have earned it. In every war of the last century, residents of Puerto Rico, for example, have served and died in greater proportional numbers than residents of most states. Now, in this new century, close to 3,500 U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have been called to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As of today, 20 U.S. citizens from that territory have died in Iraq alone, making Puerto Rico the fourth-ranking U.S. jurisdiction per capita in the number of casualties. It is a stain upon our nation that, while these heroes are fighting to afford the people of Afghanistan and Iraq with the blessings of liberty, these brave men and women are themselves denied the right to participate in the election of their commander-in-chief.

The right to vote is a fundamental right inherent in citizenship. As courts have recognized, it is fundamental because it is preservative of all other rights. We know this today: Every vote counts. The progressive recognition and inclusion of all citizens within our political process is the story of American history.

Come this time next national Election Day, may all our citizens, regardless of race, color, sex, wealth, previous condition of servitude or current territorial condition, have the right to participate in that single most important act of citizenship: the right to vote, for which so many in our history have fought and died.

Orlando Vidal is a lawyer in Washington.

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