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Cahn: Some Americans can’t vote for president

Posted: April 17, 2015 2:12 p.m.
Updated: April 20, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Who would have thought a goofy looking guy with bad teeth from Britain named John Oliver could make us laugh so hard about the insanity of American government excesses, healthcare bureaucracy and even something as seemingly boring as net neutrality?

A caveat before I begin: I have not watched every single Oliver episode nor even an entirety of an episode. He gets mentioned on Facebook a lot, with links to videos of his comical rants from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” his half-hour program on HBO.

One of his bits from early March really hit home for me. I’ve mentioned many times my three years on Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Please note the “U.S. Commonwealth” part. They are part of the United States. The CNMI is not a foreign country. Chamorros, the local people, are not illegal aliens. They are Americans -- Americans who cannot vote for president.

Along with a host of other trust territories, Oliver got into just how ridiculous those facts are.

He decided to talk about this subject the day after the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Selma, Ala., which, Oliver pointed out, led to the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to the CNMI, here’s a list of all the places where Americans do not have the same voting rights you and I do, as called out on the U.S. House floor by Delegate (not “Representative”) Stacey Plaskett:

Her own home of the U.S. Virgin Islands along with American Samoa, Puerto Rico and Guam. Please note Guam is physically part of the same chain of west Pacific islands as the CNMI (the southernmost island, in fact) but is a separate trust territory.

That’s more than 4 million people, according to Oliver, most of whom, he pointed out can be considered racial or ethnic minorities, who don’t have the right to vote for president.

What’s amazing is why they can’t vote for president. It’s goes back to when the U.S. first acquired these islands. More specifically, a 1901 law -- that’s 114 years ago, folks -- stating the new territories belonged to the U.S. but were not part of the U.S.  and were inhabited by “alien races” who might not be able to understand Anglo-Saxon laws.

“Therefore,” Guam historian Dr. Anne Perez Hattori explained in a video Oliver used, “the Constitution doesn’t have to apply.”

And guess who wrote the lead decision in that U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling? Henry Billings Brown, the same associate justice who authored the Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision which upheld the legality of racial segregation in public transportation.

Oddly enough, Brown wrote these rules should only stand for a time, Oliver points out. In other words, this should have been corrected a long time ago, but hasn’t been.

Why? Because even major media outlets can’t get it through their heads folks from Guam, the CNMI, Virgin Islands and Puerto Ricans are Americans. As Oliver so humorously pointed out through clip after clip, when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was named to the Court, many reporters and anchor referred to her as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.

How can you be an immigrant when you’re already an American?!

It’s things like this which keep lawmakers from doing the right thing, repealing the 1901 insular ruling and giving these Americans the right to vote for president.

“If Puerto Ricans are immigrants, then anyone who moves anywhere (in America) is an immigrant,” Oliver said.

Remember U.S. Virgin Island Delegate Stacy Plaskett? She and, for another example, CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan can speak on the House floor, but they cannot vote on any matter before the House.

Furthermore, none of these American islands can elect U.S. senators.

Let’s move to Guam, which is so strategically important to the U.S. that 27 percent of its land mass is given over to Navy and Air Force bases. Yet, they cannot vote for the commander-in-chief of those bases.

On top of that, one out of eight Guamanian adults are U.S. military veterans. That’s among the highest percentage of any of the island territories for military service -- likely more than most states. And they still can’t vote for president.

Even worse, those veterans are treated very poorly when it comes to services with Guam coming in dead last in medical care spending for veterans. In some cases, the closest place they can go is Hawaii, nearly 4,000 miles away.

As Oliver put it, “That is disgusting.” I couldn’t agree more.

What’s ironic about Guam is that it does vote for president -- through a straw poll which sees a higher turnout (67 percent) than the average for all of the U.S. (61 percent).

I can’t go through everything Oliver talked about on this subject. For instance, American Samoa is the only place where folks born on American soil are not even American citizens. And it is home to the top military recruiting station in the country.

This needs to change, and it needs to change now. I have lots of friends from Saipan, some of whom still live there and some of whom live here in the states. I’ve heard terrible stories, especially in the Southwest, where they are treated as Hispanic illegal immigrants when they are American citizens and shouldn’t have to prove a thing.

No American should feel less than American no matter where they live.

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