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Rep. John Lewis and the Sacred Right to Vote

As we prepare for this year’s election, voting rights are on the minds of many. One of the most important recent speeches on voting rights was this very brief one from the late Representative John Lewis.

Rep. Lewis spoke in Congress in support of HR 1, the For the People Act. “The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. In a democratic society it is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool that we have. In my heart of hearts, I believe we have a moral responsibility to restore access for all of our citizens who decide to participate in the democratic process.”

Lewis went on to express his sadness when he saw voter suppression, and his hope that all U.S. citizens would have the opportunity to vote. “We all know that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” he said. “It is an American one.”

Puerto Rico voting rights

HR 1 included the establishment within the legislative branch of a Congressional Task Force on Voting Rights of United States Citizen Residents of Territories of the United States.

People born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States by birthright. This is a statutory citizenship, conferred by Congress in 1917. It is not guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, as is birthright citizenship based on being born in one of the 50 States.

Residents of Puerto Rico, wherever they were born, are unable to vote in presidential elections. The President of the United States is elected not by popular vote but by the Electoral College, which is made up of Electors from each State. Washington, D.C., which is also not a State, also has Electors, but this required a constitutional amendment.

Statehood would enfranchise Puerto Rico

Lewis supported statehood for Puerto Rico, the status which will allow Puerto Rico voters to vote in presidential elections, elect two U.S. Senators and have what would likely be four Representatives in Congress, spread across the various committees. As soon as Puerto Rico becomes a State, all U.S. citizens residing on the island – and temporarily on the mainland – will be eligible to vote in presidential elections and send a full delegation to Congress

“I ask you, if not us, then who?” Lewis asked his fellow congressional members. “If not now, then when?” His question related to HR 1, the new voter’s rights act.

President Obama’s eulogy for Lewis listed actions that would improve U.S. voting rights. He included in his remarks an endorsement of full representation for Puerto Rico.

“[G]uaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico,” Obama said. “They are Americans.”

Voting rights was a cause that was very dear to the heart of Rep. Lewis. He concluded his speech on the subject, “Let’s save our nation and redeem the soul of America.”

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