State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Tag: Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act

Schrödinger’s Citizens: The Trouble with Territorial Disenfranchisement

By Scott Meyer

According to a 2017 poll, nearly half of Americans were unaware Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. This discrepancy seems to bely the fact that U.S. territories, of which Puerto Rico is the largest, constitute over three and a half million U.S. citizens, have some of the highest military enlistments per capita, and even pay some federal taxes. However, despite over a century of combined history as U.S. territories, their citizens still lack one of the foundations of American democracy: the right to vote in presidential elections.

The reasoning for territories’ disparate treatment comes from Supreme Court rulings from the early nineteen-hundreds, which became known as the Insular Cases. As Justice Kennedy succinctly explained in Boumediene v. Bush: “[i]n a series of opinions later known as the Insular Cases, the Court addressed whether the Constitution, by its own force, applies in any territory that is not a State.” The Court then noted the delicate balance between imputing constitutional rights to territories versus respecting their existing laws, a tension which could result in confusion and instability. To this end, the Insular Cases Court came up with “…the doctrine of territorial incorporation, under which the Constitution applies in full in incorporated Territories surely destined for statehood but only in part in unincorporated Territories.”

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Territorial Voting Rights: 7th Circuit Asked to Rule on Absentee Voting by U.S. Territory Residents

By: Stephen Fellows

In September 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments for Segovia v. United States.   The Plaintiffs, a group of Illinois citizens residing in Puerto Rico, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, want the right to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections in Illinois.  They initially brought the case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  The complaint stems from Illinois’ Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which implemented the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act (OCVRA) of 1975.  The federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) replaced the OCVRA in 1986. The UOCAVA guarantees the right to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections to Americans, both military and civilians, residing overseas.

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