Old Tricks Find New Life: Voting Rights Denied Again!
What Hawaii can--and must--learn from Guam
by Keli'i Akina, Ph.D., President/CEO, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, April 24, 2014
With the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the midst of a full-court press to enroll more "qualified Native Hawaiian" voters for a proposed election later this year, we're seeing the rebirth of an issue that should have been finished once and for all with the Supreme Court decision in Rice v. Cayetano. No matter what the intention, it is simply unconstitutional to restrict voting privileges on the basis of race or ethnicity. Grassroot Institute is working with concerned citizens in Hawaii and in the mainland to shine a light on OHA's activities, but it is worth considering a similar effort currently taking place on Guam.
The government of Guam is planning a referendum on the future of the island's territorial status (e.g. whether it should seek statehood, remain a U.S. territory, or sever ties and seek independence). It certainly is an issue worthy of a plebiscite. But a closer look at the restrictions placed on potential voters in this case bring back uncomfortable memories that have more of a whiff of Jim Crow to them. Participation in this election is being restricted only to "native inhabitants" of Guam (those who lived there prior to 1950) and their direct descendants. This means that as much as 63% of the island's residents (and virtually all of its non-Chamorro population) are not able to vote in a referendum that will shape the political future of their home.
Defenders of Guam's restrictions have attempted to argue that this provision does not fall afoul of the Constitution because it does not explicitly mention race. However, neither did any number of the notorious Jim Crow laws and grandfather clauses whose intent and effect was clearly centered on disqualifying all but a single privileged group from voting.
Distressingly, the US Department of Justice has yet to take action on this discriminatory action, though the Department of the Interior is spending $250,000 to help promote the referendum. However, Dave Davis (a retired Air Force major who has lived on Guam for more than 35 years) has filed suit against the government of Guam for rejecting his application to vote in the election. With Hawaii facing its own race-based election in the coming months, we will be watching the Guam case very closely.
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