John Oliver Explains Outdated, Racist Logic Behind Restricting Puerto Rican Voting Rights

03/09/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015

As crowds marked the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Ala. over the weekend, comedian John Oliver pointed out on Sunday that millions of Americans still go without basic voting rights.

Those born in several U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, are U.S. citizens. But residents of those territories aren't able to vote for president or have a representative in Congress that can vote. The British star noted that this is partly because of the racist thinking that prevailed among U.S. political leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“More than 4 million people live in the U.S. territories. More than 98 percent of them are racial or ethnic minorities,” Oliver said, citing U.S. Census figures. “And the more you look into the history of why their voting rights are restricted, the harder it is to justify. Because it goes all the way back to when America first acquired them.”

The show then runs footage of an interview with Anne Perez Hattori, a professor of Guam history who noted that the legal justification for limiting the voting rights of those born in U.S. territories stems from a Supreme Court decision in the case of Downes v. Bidwell in 1901. That decision said that the U.S. constitution would not have to apply in territories “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles...”

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress from the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has long spoken against the differential treatment of Puerto Rico under U.S. law. Though Pierluisi supports statehood for Puerto Rico, he has said he sympathizes more with independence supporters than those who favor retaining the island’s current status because he views commonwealth status as fundamentally unequal.

A referendum in 2012 found that a majority of Puerto Ricans opposed the current relationship with the United States, but statehood failed to win a majority of votes cast in a second question with multiple options. Pierluisi has since submitted legislation to Congress calling for an up or down vote on whether the island should become a U.S. state.

Oliver appeared to sympathize with Pierluisi’s protests against the island’s status.

“Puerto Rico has more American citizens than 21 U.S. states, but less voting rights than any of them,” Oliver said.

The U.S. territories of Guam and American Samoa face similar tensions as Puerto Rico.

“Last Week Tonight” also ran news footage from journalist Maria Hinojosa’s “America By The Numbers” series showing that one in eight adult Guamanians is a U.S. veteran but largely lack resources once they return home.

CORRECTION: This post was corrected to clarify that residents of U.S. territories may not vote in federal elections. Those born in the territories who are U.S. citizens may vote in federal elections if they move to one of the 50 U.S. states.

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