Federal lawsuit demands voting rights for US territories
Randy Reeves and Ben Borja are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking to extend voting rights to Americans living in U.S. territories.
While American voters get ready for the Nov. 3 presidential elections, six U.S. citizens living in Guam and U.S. Virgin Islands have sued the U.S. government challenging federal and state laws that deny them the right to vote for president and voting representation in Congress while protecting full enjoyment of the right to vote for citizens living in other U.S. territories and in foreign countries.
Being excluded from participating in national elections is among the constitutional issues resented by citizens living in U.S. territories.
The civil rights group Equally American, which advocates for equality and voting rights for the nearly 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories, is joining the lawsuit.
Lead plaintiff Randy Reeves said he was able to vote for president by absentee ballot when he was a civilian contractor living in Germany at the end of the cold war. However, he has been unable to vote for president when the Federal Aviation Administration assigned him to Guam, while colleagues who were assigned to the Northern Mariana Islands continue to be afforded the right to vote for president by absentee ballot.
“Picking and choosing which citizens can vote for President based solely on where they happen to live is not just wrong, I believe it is unconstitutional," Reeves said.
Absentee ballots have become one of the hot-button issues of the 2020 election. However, citizens who move to certain U.S. territories are treated unequally when it comes to being able to vote for president by absentee ballot.
Under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and state overseas voting laws, former state residents who are now residents of the Northern Mariana Islands or a foreign country are able to continue voting for president and voting representation in Congress by absentee ballot in their former state of residence. But plaintiffs – each former residents of Hawaii – have lost full enjoyment of their right to vote by virtue of living in Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“In a rollercoaster year where the president and Congress are making life-and-death decisions related to Covid-19 and other critical issues, it is unjust and absurd that U.S. citizens in the territories have no voice in these fundamental issues simply because of where they live,” said Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American. “Where you live shouldn’t cost you the right to vote.”
The four plaintiffs who are residents of Guam include Randy Reeves, Ben Borja, Dr. Fred Schroeder and Patti Arroyo. Reeves is an Air Force veteran, who lost his right to vote for president after the FAA assigned him to Guam, where he has now lived for more than 20 years.
Borja served for 28 years in the U.S. Navy, volunteering to serve in 1969 after it was clear he would be drafted.
Schroeder has practiced family medicine on Guam for decades, seeing first-hand how a lack of voting rights has contributed to disparities in federal healthcare programs that have denied island residents of much-needed care. Patti Arroyo is a popular talk show host whose program regularly discusses federal policy issues impacted by the denial of voting rights.
“I served 28 years in the U.S. Navy, leaving my family for months at a time to defend democracy and the Constitution,” said Ben Borja. “I’ve earned the right to vote, and I want to be able to see my children and grandchildren treated the same as any other U.S. citizen. Every citizen deserves the right to vote, wherever they happen to live.”
Plaintiffs in the U.S. Virgin Islands include Ravi Nagi and Laura Castillo Nagi, two attorneys who have raised their children in St. Thomas after moving there from Hawaii 15 years ago.
Plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorneys TJ Quan, who grew up on Guam and now practices law in Hawaii; Vanessa Williams, an attorney on Guam; Pamela Colon, an attorney in the U.S. Virgin Islands who was a plaintiff in a similar lawsuit, Segovia v. United States; and a team of pro bono attorneys based in Washington, D.C., several of whom were involved in the previous Segovia litigation.
“People in Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other Territories have been unjustly treated as second-class citizens of the United States for far too long,” said TJ Quan, one of plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case, who grew up in Guam and now practices law in Hawaii. “So long as the U.S. flag flies over U.S. territories, residents of these communities should have a voice in the laws they are required to follow. As the residents of these territories continue to actively pursue self-determination, expanding voting rights is all the more critical.”
“Voting is a right, not a privilege,” said Vanessa Williams, co-counsel on Guam to the plaintiffs. “To truly form a more perfect Union, the U.S. must extend political participation to all of its citizens, wherever they live. Expanding voting rights on Guam is an important part of the broader struggle for the people of Guam to be able to determine our own destiny.”
The lawsuit is part of Equally American’s broader advocacy to fight for full voting rights for every U.S. citizen, whether one lives in a State or Territory. In July, Weare testified before a congressional hearing on territorial voting rights that was held by the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections.
“The next Congress may have an historic opportunity to finally address the denial of voting rights to the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who live in territories,” Weare said. “Whether it takes statehood or a constitutional amendment, Congress and the President must act to end over 120 years of disenfranchisement.”
This new voting rights lawsuit comes after a string of major court victories in favor of current and former residents of U.S. territories who have been discriminated against because of where they live or where they were born.
Last December, a federal district court in Utah ruled in Fitisemanu v. United States that – contrary to the position of the federal government – people born in U.S. territories have a constitutional right to U.S. citizenship. Decisions in two cases out of Puerto Rico and one case out of Guam have ruled that the denial of federal healthcare benefits, including Supplemental Security Income, violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Ultimately, all of these issues may need to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The population of the five U.S. territories is nearly 4 million, which is greater than nearly half the states, and larger than the five smallest states combined. Yet these U.S. citizens are denied any voting representation in Congress. And while they can vote for President in the Primary Election and enjoy full participation at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, they will not be allowed to vote for President in November 2020.
With more than 98 percent of the residents of U.S. territories racial or ethnic minorities, the continued disenfranchisement of these Americans presents an important civil rights and racial justice issue, according to Equally American.
The territories are among the U.S. jurisdictions with high enlistment rates. More than 100,000 veterans currently living in U.S. territories. Residents of the territories pay more than $3.5 billion a year in federal taxes, but have no say in how those tax dollars are spent.
Politically, each of the territories has a history for voting across party lines. While the current governor of Guam is a Democrat, its immediate past two governors were Republican. The current governor of the Virgin Islands is a Democrat while its last governor was a former Republican who ran as an Independent. In Congress, Puerto Rico and American Samoa are represented by Republicans, while Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the NMI are represented by Democrats.
While resident of U.S. territories can’t vote, those who move to a state can. There is now a territorial diaspora of than 5 million Americans living in the states who have ties to the territories, whether through family or having actually lived in a territory.
This territorial diaspora may prove key in determining who wins the 2020 presidential election, with the territorial diaspora in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania greatly exceeding the margin of victory from 2016.
More than 750,000 U.S. citizens of voting age with ties to the territories live in Florida, 340,000 in Pennsylvania, 75,000 in North Carolina, 70,000 in Georgia, 40,000 in Wisconsin, and 30,000 in Arizona and Michigan.