Fight continues for US territories' full participation in democratic process
U.S. territories need real representation in the nation’s capital and must be allowed to vote for president, former congressman Robert Underwood said.
“If they are going to be kept as territories until a future and final political status is determined, then they should be given the right to grant their consent to this body,” said Underwood, former president of the University of Guam.
Underwood, who represented Guam in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003, is seeking to return to Congress. He is vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the Aug. 29 primary, challenging the incumbent Guam delegate, Michael San Nicolas. Running unopposed in the Republican Party’s camp is Sen. Wil Castro.
Underwood cited the challenges of representing a territory in the nation’s capital, where territorial delegates have no voting power, thus do not get to fully participate in the proceedings of the House of Representatives.
“The best way to explain the nature of American citizenship in the territories was to explain to other Americans that territorial citizens could not vote for president,” Underwood stated in a written testimony submitted to the House Administration Committee.
The committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the voting rights for U.S. territories, including Guam, Virgin Islands, the CNMI, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and District of Columbia. Nearly 5 million citizens from these jurisdictions are unable to participate in the national elections.
“As it stands now, the people of Guam, especially those in the military, must choose between voting for their congressional delegate or voting for president,” Underwood said. “If you are a soldier from Guam in a combat area today, you could choose to vote for your congressional representative or give up residency and vote for president. No one in uniform or indeed, no American should have to make that choice.”
Underwood said the U.S. territories “seem like a different world,” where the full meaning of democracy does not apply. And yet, he added, the congressional body makes decisions for territorial Americans without their consent.
“This is not just illogical. This is un-American. And it has no promise of being remedied because we think that voting rights and election reform does not include voting power and consent of the governed,” he said.
“The full discussion of whether territories should be represented in the body which makes laws over them is essential to defining the true meaning of the democratic creed. Voting for the president is equally important, but the lack of consent of the governed in the very body that governs, should be an affront to all and not just those people who live beyond the water’s edge.”
Quoting President William Henry Harrison, Underwood said, “The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed. The essence of American democracy is laid upon the foundation of getting consent from those who are governed.”
Underwood recommends that the Congress work directly with the territorial governments to establish a secure system of electronic voting that can be monitored by all parties and which are verified by paper receipt for future reference or challenge.
“While important documents and paper checks continue to be delivered through the mail, the rate has gone down dramatically as we move towards more efficient and secure financial transactions,” he said.
“Voting should be similarly as efficient as well as honest. Without the efficiency, we put barriers to participation. Those barriers keep us from receiving the honest will of the people. We must remove those today.”
Last week, the advocacy group Equally American called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold a hearing on the right to political participation in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
“An IACHR thematic hearing is an important international forum to raise awareness on these timely and important questions of citizenship and voting rights in U.S. territories,” said Neil Weare, president and Founder of Equally American, a nonprofit that advocates for equality and voting rights in U.S. territories.
“If the hearing is granted, we will be able to bring together experts and witnesses from across the territories to examine how disenfranchisement has impacted the daily lives of these Americans.”
In 2018, Equally American filed an amicus brief on behalf of leaders from Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands in Rosselló v. United States, a still-pending IACHR case arguing that the denial of voting rights in Puerto Rico violates the American Declaration.
The case builds on Statehood Solidarity Committee v. United States, in which the IACHR concluded that the United States had violated its obligations under the American Declaration by failing to provide full political participation to DC residents.
“With the thematic hearing, we will be able to include the IACHR in an even more comprehensive examination of issues facing D.C.,” said Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, which fights for full and equal representation for DC residents. “With Congress currently considering the Washington, D.C. Admission Act to make the District a State, an IACHR hearing would help shine an international spotlight on the ongoing disenfranchisement residents of DC face.”
If the request is granted, Equally American and DC Vote, along with selected experts and witnesses from the territories and D.C., will present on the issue of political participation during the commission's 177th period of sessions between Sept. 28 and Oct. 9.