Brow Beat

John Oliver on the Other Americans Who Still Don’t Have Full Voting Rights

On the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, many Americans have turned their thoughts to how their legacy has begun to be slowly dismantled. But for his main story on Sunday night, John Oliver turned his thoughts to a different group of Americans who still don’t have equal rights in the voting booth: the residents of the U.S. island territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.

As Oliver points out, the populations of these territories are mostly minorities, and the original rationale for denying them equal voting rights was racist: It called them “alien races” who don’t understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” Even Justice Henry Billings Brown, the man who wrote the famous “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, suggested this thinking should only stand “for a time.” So why is the Obama administration still citing these decisions more than a century later? Oliver has a knack for putting these issues in terms anyone can relate to: “It’s like for over a century, America’s computer has been saying, ‘An update to your country is available,’ and we’ve been clicking ‘Remind me later’ again and again and again.”