Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

United States Territories Today

By Crispinus LeePublished October 21, 2014

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Territories of the United States and their inhabitants should be given full political rights to preserve and protect the quality of our democracy.
By Crispinus Lee, 10/21/2014

Territorial Americans, or American Nationals stand in the purgatory of political enfranchisement in the U.S. political system. The territories are one of the many vestiges of American global domination, but perhaps the most overlooked. Territories are given some status and legality, in the sense that they send congressional delegates to the United States as well as helping to nominate candidates, but the situation is much more complicated. The process of a territory existing under the United States to vote for presidential candidates is non-existent and its representatives (known as commissioners or delegates) do note vote on bills in the United States Congress. Similarly, representatives from the territories in the house are incapable of voting on legislation.

Many of the overseas territories are understandably not considered for rights or any form of constitutional application, seeing as they are islands far too small to allow for residence, but others such as American Samoa or Guam understandably seek recognition. Despite the residence of more people in the territories (notably Puerto Rico) than nearly 20 states, their votes do not count in the United States. Puerto Rico alone is home to nearly 3 million American citizens (nationals) which begs the question why has it been disenfranchised in presidential elections, despite being responsible for other citizen duties such as selective service.


The criteria for disenfranchisement are mostly geographic. U.S. territorial nationals are allowed to vote if they achieve residential status in the 50 states. Similarly, U.S citizens that reside in the territories are similarly incapable of voting for presidency. Those born as Puerto Ricans are required achieve residency status in one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia in order to gain or regain that right of enfranchisement. This is a bit disconcerting, considering as that Americans actually are capable of voting outside the United States by sending their vote to overseas outposts such as embassies or mailing a vote back to the United States, to whichever state the individual had resided in prior to residing in whatever country they've moved on to. Similar systems of assistance can also be found in the United States armed services. In fact, a precedent for voting from outer space had been set in 1997 by the Texas legislature and was executed by a one Leroy Chiao, who had the honor of voting in the 2004 presidential race, making him the first American to do so in outer space. Although this may seem like trivia, it is disheartening to note that U.S. territories are the few areas in the universe where Americans are incapable of participating in federal processes. This is particularly a severe insult when those same individuals are governed by laws concerning recruitment and commodity taxes.


The classification of territories has not changed radically since World War II. The status given to territories, or rather the way the territories are organized in American bureaucracy is complicated. A territory is classified as unorganized unincorporated, organized unincorporated, or organized incorporated. In the context, incorporation means the totality of the constitution applies in the territory, while organized means there has been an organic act that formed an agency of governance in the territory (note: though there is a unorganized unincorporated territory named Palmyra Atoll, the reason is due to the fact that it was formerly part of the Territory of Hawaii) The category of organized and incorporated is reserved for a territory preparing to become a state, which was last occupied by the Territorial department of Hawaii. Currently, no territory falls into this category as the United States Congress has yet to delegate that position to the most likely candidate Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S. is admittedly more complex due to the commonwealth status, but it continues to fall into the unincorporated organized territory due to the fact that not all constitutional rights are given to those in Puerto Rico. 


Although territories get some benefit by being exempted from income taxes (income taxes are managed by territorial or commonwealth departments), the lack of major political participation while making decisions such as entrance into the Selective Service and manipulation of territorial foreign policy necessitates a response or extension of basic citizen rights in the area. The problem can actually be solved with Congressional action to categorize the territories up to date as well as action within congress by territorial representation. People within territories as well as those residing on the continental United States can urge for legislation that will rectify some obsolete structures. Many can follow the scenario of the Puerto Rico's resolution act. The low prognosis seems only to urge many to ask for the voting in favor, considering that the act had initially seemed to receive bilateral support from a group of 30 congressmen.