New Federal Voting Rights Lawsuit For Territorial Residents Filed

Lawsuit a Part of New Push for a Constitutional Amendment to Provide Representation and the Right to Vote to All Americans, Wherever They Live

 

Six U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, November 10th, 2015, 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.  Joining in the lawsuit is a Guam-based Veterans organization, Iraq Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific, and the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands. A copy of the complaint is available here.

“One year out from the 2016 presidential election, this lawsuit highlights the injustice and absurdity that in 2015 Americans are still being disenfranchised because of where they live,” said Neil Weare, President and Founder of We the People Project, which advocates for equal rights and representation for the over 4 million U.S. citizens living in U.S. territories.  “Getting a new address shouldn’t mean losing the right to vote.”

The lawsuit is part of a broader effort We the People Project is kicking off this Veterans Day to advocate for full voting rights for every American, whether one lives in a State, Territory, or the District of Columbia.  With the 2016 Presidential Election cycle in full swing, We the People Project is calling to build on the Twenty-Third Amendment to guarantee representation and the right to vote for President to all Americans, wherever they live.

“The U.S. Constitution has already been amended once to protect the right to vote for U.S. citizens living in non-state areas.  With more than 4 million Americans continuing to be disenfranchised because of where they live, it is time to again expand the right to vote through a constitutional amendment,” said Neil Weare, President of We the People Project.                    

New Voting Rights Challenge

Under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and Illinois’ Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (“MOVE”) law, a former resident of Illinois who is now a resident of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, or a foreign country can continue voting for President and voting representation in Congress in Illinois by absentee ballot.  But plaintiffs – each a former resident of Illinois – have lost full enjoyment of their right to vote by virtue of living in Puerto Rico, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Equal protection does not permit Congress or the States to protect the right to vote for certain Americans living overseas while denying it to others,” said Geoffrey Wyatt, a DC-based attorney, who represents plaintiffs along with We the People Project and Attorneys Luis Marin Rivera (Puerto Rico), Semaj Johnson (Virgin Islands), and Leevin Camacho (Guam).

Lead plaintiff Luis Segovia, a U.S. citizen who lives in Guam with his family, served an 18 month tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army, a 12 month tour in Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard, and a 10 month tour in Afghanistan as part of the Guam National Guard.  In Iraq, he helped provide security for the 2005 Iraqi elections.  He was deployed on his second tour to Afghanistan just months after the 2012 presidential elections, unable to vote for President.

“On Veterans Day, it’s hard to be treated like I am good enough to risk my life defending democracy, but not good enough to vote for my Commander-in-Chief,” said Mr. Segovia, who is currently a Staff Sergeant in the Guam National Guard and who also serves in the civilian security forces for the U.S. Navy.

Three other plaintiffs are Veterans, including two Vietnam-era Veterans who live in Puerto Rico.

New Push for a Constitutional Amendment for the Right to Vote, Wherever You Live

While the Constitution has already been amended once to provide federal voting rights to residents of non-state areas, the path to a constitutional amendment is always steep.  In order to help create support for a new voting rights amendment, We the People Project is calling on the public to:

1)      Go to www.EquallyAmerican.org to sign our Equal Rights Petition to support the right to vote, wherever you live.

2)      Call on your elected officials to support a constitutional amendment to guarantee representation and the right to vote for President to all Americans, wherever they live.

3)      If you are a resident of a U.S. territory, make support of a new voting rights amendment a litmus test for Presidential candidates seeking your vote in the Primary.

4)      If you are part of the territorial diaspora, make support of a new voting rights amendment a litmus test for Presidential candidates seeking your vote in the Primary and General elections.

We the People Project has been working closely with Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (Guam) and Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (Virgin Islands) to push for expanded voting rights.   “Voting is the most basic of rights in our representative democracy. The people of Guam and other U.S. territories deserve full voting representation in Congress and the right to vote for our President,” said Congresswoman Bordallo.  “On the 50th Anniversary of the March on Selma and the Voting Rights Act, it is important that we remind the nation that there are still Americans fighting for the right to vote,” Congresswoman Plaskett said.

The population of the five U.S. territories exceeds 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 2016.

With more than 98% 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.  The territories also have a history of service and sacrifice to the United States, with more than 150,000 veterans currently living in U.S. territories.  In 2014, residents of the territories also paid more than $3.5 billion in federal taxes, but receive significantly less in the way of federal benefits programs.

Politically, each of the territories has a history for voting across party lines.  While the current Puerto Rico Governor is a Democrat, its immediate past Governor is a Republican.  Both Guam and the NMI currently have Republican Governors but Democratic Non-Voting Delegates to Congress.  The situation is reversed in American Samoa, with a Democratic Governor and a Republican Non-Voting Delegate.  The Virgin Islands has an Independent Governor (who is a former Republican), and a Democratic Non-Voting Delegate.  

There is also 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.  They fully enjoy the right to vote; looking ahead to 2016 swing states, more than 1 million of this diaspora live in Florida, 423,000 in Pennsylvania, 108,000 in Ohio, 92,000 in Virginia, and 89,000 in North Carolina.  The diaspora living in Florida, as in the territories, has a record of voting for both Democrats and Republicans.

Already 2016 Presidential candidates have looked to the territories for primary votes, with Republican front-runner Ben Carson speaking in Puerto Rico on Sunday. Ted Cruz has sent paid staffers to Guam and American Samoa.

The issue of voting rights in U.S. territories is beginning to receive national attention, with HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver taking a humorous look at this serious issue on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Selma.  Last year, PBS’s America By the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa examined the Veterans health care crisis in Guam and its connections to political disenfranchisement.

 

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