U.S. Senator Decries Lack Of Voting Rights For Territories

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Warren says it’s ‘Absurd’ 4 million can’t participate in decisions

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, April 10, 2016) – US Sen. Elizabeth Warren calls it "absurd" that the four million Americans living in the US territories — American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands — are unable to vote for the US President, or have Congressional representation with voting privileges in both the US House and US Senate.

The Democratic senator from Massachusetts made the comment during Tuesday’s Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, where US Interior Assistant Secretary of Insular Areas, Esther Kia’aina was one of two witnesses testifying on measures dealing with the insular areas. The committee hearing was webcast live online.

Although she didn’t ask questions pertaining to the specific bills, Warren pointed out that "people who live on these islands are Americans, they are subject to federal law, more than 150,000 people from these islands have served our country in the Armed Forces, and many have died in service."

She observed that it’s the "central principle of our American democracy, that Americans through their vote can have a say in their own government."

"And yet," Warren notes, "these 4 million Americans have almost no say in federal decision making, even when it directly affects the islands they live on." For example, they can’t vote in US Presidential elections, they have no senators in the US Senate and each territory gets one non-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives.

And since Kia’aina’s office coordinates federal policies for most of the territories, Warren questioned the Assistant Secretary in order to get a better understanding on voting issues. Responding to the senator’s first question, Kia’aina confirmed as "correct" that if a US citizen is born and lives on Guam, that person cannot vote for the President as long as that person resides in Guam.

"But if she moves to a US state, say California — can she vote there?" Warren asked, to which Kia’aina responded, "if she meets residence requirements and voter registration within California, and her permanent record is not in Guam."

Warren then asked, "Let’s says she moves from California to a foreign country, for example Italy, can she vote for the President from Italy?" Kia’aina responded, yes, as long as her residence of record is California.

"So a US citizen from Guam can vote in California, or can vote in Italy and moves back — and her residency is now in Guam— she loses her ability to vote?" Warren asked, to which Kia’aina responded "that’s correct."

"I just have to say, this is absurd," Warren declared. "Four million Americans live on American soil and can fully participate in our democracy, but only if they leave home. At their homes on US soil, all of their representational rights disappear."

"This kind of second-class status is not how our government is supposed to work and it has real implications," she said and pointed to Puerto Rico for example, which is facing a $72 billion debt — and residents of that Caribbean territory have no say on policies affecting them. She has urged Congress to approve a bail out plan for Puerto Rico.

Warren added, "the four-million people who live in the territories are not the subjects of a King, they are Americans, they live in America but their interests will never be fully represented within our government until they have full vote and rights just like every other American."

Over the past years, there have been some Congressional members, in both the Senate and House, who have voiced the same concerns in their respective chambers.

BACKGROUND

It’s common knowledge that US citizens living in American Samoa, as well as other US territories are not eligible to vote in the US Presidential race, although they can select a candidate for President during their local Democratic or Republican party conventions or caucuses.

Last November, six plaintiffs — all US citizens and former residents of Illinois — now living in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, filed a voting rights lawsuit at the federal court at the Northern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs are all serving in the US Armed Forces.

The lawsuit challenges an Illinois statute that allows voting in elections by Illinois residents who are in a foreign country, American Samoa, or Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, but not by Illinois residents who are in Guam, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands.

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