Marshall Islands Prohibits Absentee Voting For Overseas Marshallese

Estimated 30% of population living overseas to be disenfranchised

By Giff Johnson 

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Nov. 1, 2016) – Legislation prohibiting voting by mail by Marshall Islanders living outside of the country was signed into law by the parliament speaker — but not before it was held up briefly by a rare expression of concern from the country’s Council of Chiefs.

“Bill No. 6” ignited a barrage of criticism and complaints from many Marshall Islanders living overseas when it was introduced in parliament earlier this year, and was the subject of impassioned and largely negative testimony at public hearings. The controversial legislation barely passed parliament by the slim margin of 13-12 before legislators adjourned for the year at the end of September.

The new law eliminates the right of voters living offshore to vote by submitting absentee ballots through the mail. With an estimated 30 percent of Marshall Islanders now living in the United States, the new legislation has major implications for future elections. Already in the 2011 and 2015 national elections, several mayoral and parliament seats were decided on the strength of offshore absentee votes. Although only about 2,000 postal absentee votes met all requirements for tabulation in the 2015 national election, some 5,000 ballots were requested by Marshall Islanders living in the United States, said the government’s Chief Electoral Offier Robson Almen. Most election contests in the Marshall Islands are decided by fewer than 100 votes, with some determined by as few as 10 votes.

Earlier in October, Speaker Kenneth Kedi and parliament Clerk Morean Watak signed into law 18 pieces of legislation adopted by the recently concluded session of parliament — but the speaker put Bill No. 6 temporarily on hold following receipt of a letter of concern from the Council of Chiefs asking parliamentarians to reconsider the legislation.

The speaker said that though the letter of concern from the council did not follow the constitutionally prescribed format of a resolution, the fact that Council members made a rare intervention in connection with parliament legislation required him to hear their concerns.

Last week, following a lunch meeting hosted by Kedi with the Council of Chiefs, Vice Speaker Jejwarick Anton representatives from the offices of the attorney general and parliament legislative counsel, the speaker and the clerk signed Bill No. 6 into law. During the meeting with Kedi, traditional leaders reiterated the point in their letter, requesting the speaker to revisit this legislation. They urged that instead of shutting the door for Marshallese outside of the Marshall Islands to participate in elections, parliament should find ways to improve the postal voting system. The speaker said there was “intensive in-depth deliberation on issues revolving around Nitijela Bill No. 6” as well as Nitijela Rules and Procedures regarding passage of legislation. This resulted in an agreement to wait until January to bring the matter to parliament for further reconsideration.

Kedi assured the traditional leaders that during the first week of January the council’s communication will be included on the parliament’s agenda and from there, any member can sponsor the requested amendment. The speaker informed traditional leaders that he would sign Bill No. 6 into law following their meeting to comply with the constitutional process.

“Our iroij (traditional leaders) have spoken and now parliament should consider their request to amend the law come January,” Kedi said.

As a result of this new law, Marshall Islanders living outside the Marshall Islands will not have the option of casting absentee votes by mail for the first time since the Election and Referenda Act was adopted in 1980.

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