By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
House expected to pass bill seeking equal voting rights for US territories
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to give the nod to For the People Act, which proposes sweeping election reforms that include a review of the voting gap — with an ultimate goal to extend presidential ballot — in the U.S. territories.
House members are expected to pass H.R. 1 this week. The bill includes a provision to establish a congressional task force that would evaluate federal voting rights and other election issues facing the U.S. territories.
For the 4 million U.S. citizens residing in Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the bill's enactment could mean one step toward their eventual participation in the U.S. presidential election.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, chair of the natural resources committee, announced his support for H.R. 1.
“The For The People Act is a transformational clean elections reform package that protects our access to the ballot box, reduces the influence of big money in politics, strengthens ethics rules for public servants, and implements anti-corruption measures to protect our democracy,” Grijalva said.
“Millions of people living in U.S. territories have weak or limited representation in Congress despite many of them being citizens and following federal laws. It’s time to stop treating millions of Americans like second-class citizens just because of where they live. It’s anti-democratic."
The For the People Act, Grijalva added, "seeks to remedy this injustice."
Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the CNMI, vice chair of insular affairs, noted that the CNMI has the highest voter turnout rates in the nation.
“Yet our self-government is limited," he added, "because we cannot vote for president and lack full voting representation in Congress."
While H.R. 1 may not solve the problem, Sablan said, it would at least acknowledge the gap in political process.
"I look forward to the report of the task force on voting rights and its recommendations on achieving full and equal voting rights for the people of the Marianas and other non-state areas,” Sablan said.
Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett of Virgin Islands said the bill is also aimed at giving U.S. territories equitable voting representation in Congress.
“I hope to honor my late colleague, Congressman John Lewis, and all those who came before us by continuing to fight for our equal right to vote. The nearly four million people who live in U.S. territory are not the subjects of a king or a master," Plaskett said.
"They are American citizens. While they live in America, their interests will not be fully represented within the government of the United States until they have full and equal voting rights, just like other Americans.," she added.
“The inclusion of an official task force in the bill to study territorial voting rights and work to enhance territory inclusion is a major step toward bringing along all Americans, and is most welcomed,” said Rep. Michael F.Q. San Nicolas of Guam.
Grijalva said his mission is to advance justice and equity in the U.S. territories by working to extend full voting rights, expand access to federal programs and resolve Puerto Rico’s political status.
The bill was first introduced and passed in 2019 during the last Congress and reintroduced by Rep. John Sabranes, D-Md, who noted that the "2020 election underscored the need for comprehensive, structural democracy reform."
The For The People Act, if signed into law, would mandate the formation of a 12-member Congressional Task Force on Voting Rights of United States Citizen Residents of Territories of the United States, to be terminated upon issuing its report to Congress.
Task Force members will be appointed by the Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and various members of majority and minority leadership across several committees.