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Voting Rights and Puerto Rico

Voting rights have been top of mind in Washington, where the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. have been combined into one big voting rights act, called “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.”

HR 5476, currently under debate in the Senate, focuses on four categories of voting rights issues:

  • Voter Access
  • Election Integrity
  • Civic Participation and Empowerment
  • Voting Rights

This bill includes a number of actions intended to improve access to and integrity of voting in the United States. For example, Election Day will be a national holiday, solving the problems some workers have of getting to the polls on a workday. It will ensure greater ease of online voter registration and make some changes intended to increase ease of voter registration for individuals with disabilities. The bill simplifies mail-in ballots, requires the use of U.S.-made voting machines, and addresses the practice of gerrymandering.

More detail on the provisions of the bill.

The bill passed in the House but is expected to die in the Senate, where a simple majority will not be enough to ensure passage.

The U.S. has a history of limited voting rights

While the majority of Americans accept the idea that the right to vote is sacred, the nation has a history of limiting voting rights for groups of individuals.

In 1776, just 6% of Americans — landowners — were permitted to vote. The property requirement was not eliminated until 1856, when free white men were allowed to vote in all states.

In 1870, it became illegal to stop citizens from voting on the basis of race. However, Native Americans and people of Chinese ancestry were soon stripped of their citizenship and therefore of their rights to vote. Restrictions on Native Americans finally ended in 1947 and those on Asians were cleared up in 1952.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans became citizens. Residents of Puerto Rico still cannot vote in presidential elections.

American women living in the States got the vote in 1920, but women living in Puerto Rico continued to work for suffrage until 1935. Women living in Puerto Rico still cannot vote in presidential elections.

In 2000, a court decision reaffirmed the fact that residents of U.S. territories cannot vote in presidential elections.

In 2020, a wave of laws creating voter restrictions passed in various states around the nation. The Carnegie Corporation lists intentional limitations of voting rights that citizens still face.

And Puerto Rico?

More than three million U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico are unable to vote in presidential elections. This glaring failure of voting rights is not addressed in the new Freedom to Vote Act. It has not been mentioned in the stirring speeches on voting rights made by the president and vice president.

The Freedom to Vote Act does apply to local voting in Puerto Rico, since it specifies that “state” is meant to include Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories, but it does not mention their disenfranchisement in presidential elections.

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