The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled against expanding territorial voting rights in a case that affects the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico but not American Samoa or the Northern Marianas, saying the plaintiffs, two of whom live on St. Croix, lacked standing.
In a ruling issued Wednesday, the court found states can allow former residents who live in those territories to vote absentee from these territories, but are not constitutionally or legally bound to do so. Its ruling suggests a constitutional amendment is the only way to remedy the situation.
Six U.S. citizens living in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam filed a federal lawsuit 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.
The lawsuit is part of a broader effort of a group called We the People Project, to advocate for full voting rights for every American, whether one lives in a state, territory or the District of Columbia. Neal Weare is president and founder of We the People Project, which advocates for equal rights and representation for the more than four million U.S. citizens living in U.S. territories.
An array of V.I. officials have supported the effort, including Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-VI).
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. 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.
The court agreed the right to vote is a fundamental right. And it appeared to agree the plaintiffs were injured. But it concluded they lacked standing, partly because it was a state that injured them, not the federal government.
“Illinois has caused their injuries by failing to provide them ballots. Simply put, the plaintiffs cannot sue the federal government for failing to enact a law requiring Illinois to remedy their injury. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the UOCAVA,” the Seventh Circuit panel writes in its decision.
While voting is a fundamental right, “the residents of the territories have no fundamental right to vote in federal elections,” the panel writes.
The judges cited a long legal tradition of denying the vote to residents of certain districts and suggest only a constitutional amendment can rectify what they refer to as an “injury.”
“The territories send no electors to vote for president or vice president and have no voting members in the United States Congress. Even residents of the District of Columbia had no federal voting rights at all until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1960, allowing the District to designate three electors to vote with the Electoral College. Washington, D.C. still has no voting representation in the House of Representatives or the Senate,” they write.
“The unmistakable conclusion is that, absent a constitutional amendment, only residents of the 50 states have the right to vote in federal elections. The plaintiffs have no special right simply because they used to live in a state,” they concluded.
Weare also supports a constitutional amendment.
“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 when the suit was filed.
After Wednesday’s decision, Weare said they will soon decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The right to vote should not depend on your zip code or where you happen to live. We are disappointed the court found no issue with laws that extend absentee voting rights to citizens living in the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa or a foreign country, while denying these same rights to citizens living in Guam, Puerto Rico, or the Northern Mariana Islands,” Weare said in a statement.
“There is simply no basis for treating residents of one territory differently from those of another when it comes to something as basic as the right to vote,” he added.
They have until April 18 to petition the Supreme Court to review the case, according to Weare.
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. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal in that case. (See “Related Links,” below.)
All case filings are available at http://www.equalrightsnow.org/segovia.