Six U.S. citizens living in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, challenging laws that deny them votes in Congress and the right to vote for U.S. president, while protecting voting rights of citizens living in other U.S. territories and even foreign countries, according to a statement from attorney Neil Weare. [Territories Voting Rights Lawsuit]
“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 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.
The lawsuit is part of a broader effort We the People Project is kicking off on 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 23rd Amendment (right to vote for president in D.C.) to guarantee representation and the right to vote for president to all Americans, wherever they live," Weare said in a statement.
“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 four million Americans continuing to be disenfranchised because they live in a U.S. territory, it is time to again expand the right to vote through a constitutional amendment,” Weare said.
Under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and Illinois’ Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment 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 the six plaintiffs in the suit, who all used to live in Illinois, lost their right to vote by virtue of living in Puerto Rico, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Weare.
“Equal protection does not permit Congress or the states to protect the right to vote for certain Americans while denying it to others,” said St. Croix attorney Semaj Johnson. Johnson represents plaintiffs along with We the People Project, D.C. attorney Geoffrey Wyatt and attorneys in Puerto Rico and Guam.
“Our goal with this lawsuit is to challenge the status quo and bring us one step closer to making sure everyone in the Virgin Islands has full enjoyment of the right to vote," Johnson said.
Two plaintiffs are long-time St. Croix residents: Pamela Lynn Colon, who has lived in the USVI since 1992, and Lavonne Wise, who has lived in the territory more than a decade.
“As a criminal defense attorney, I think the right to vote is a critical foundation for an accountable criminal justice system, and it’s a foundation that is lacking in the Virgin Islands as a result of our disenfranchisement,” Colon said in the statement. “Next year my son will have to register for the selective service and yet he won’t be able to vote for his president. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work," she said.
Wise said, “So long as you are a U.S. citizen, where you live shouldn’t have anything to do with whether your fundamental right to vote is protected.”
V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett supports the effort, according to Weare’s statement, which Plaskett’s office sent to media.
“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," Plaskett said in the statement. "We have an opportunity in this presidential election cycle to make this an issue in the primary election and the (partisan) national conventions. We want the next president to know that we expect that they will fight for our right to vote in presidential elections and for the rights of our veterans to elect their commander in chief,” Plaskett said.
The population of the five U.S. territories exceeds four million, which is greater than nearly half the states and larger than the five smallest states combined. 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. Another five million people live in the states who are from the territories or have ties there.
This is not a partisan issue. Politically each of the territories has a history for voting across party lines. The Virgin Islands has an independent, nonpartisan governor who is a former Republican, while Plaskett is a Democrat. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the largest territory, Puerto Rico, all have strong Republican and Democratic parties in and out of government.
There are now Virgin Islanders who live in states and congressional districts across the United States and they can support their friends and family back home who cannot yet vote by exercising their right to vote next November for candidates who support a voting rights amendment for the territories, according to Weare and We the People Project.
The League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and a Guam-based veterans organization, and Iraq Afghanistan and Persian Gulf veterans of the Pacific have also joined the lawsuit.
“Every step forward when it comes to voting rights means more political power for Virgin Islanders in Washington,” said V.I. League of Women Voters President Gwen Moolenaar.
“Without representation and the right to vote for president, it’s like we have both hands tied behind our back when our leaders advocate for the Virgin Islands in Washington,” attorney and V.I. League of Women Voters board member Genevieve Whitaker said. Whitaker is also a deputy supervisor of elections on St. Croix.
“This case can help shift the power dynamic in Washington – if successful, we can turn the tables by saying, give us all the right to vote or those who can vote absentee will vote against you,” added attorney Tanisha Bailey Roka of St. Croix. Roka is also a V.I. League of Women Voters member.
This case is not the only court battle Weare and his group have engaged in. An appellate court ruled birthright citizenship is not a fundamental right in the territories, although it is in the states. (See Related Links below)
To find out more or to help support a new voting rights amendment to the Constitution, go to www.EquallyAmerican.org where you can sign a petition, or take a survey at www.RepresentVI.org.