Residents of U.S. Territories Ask Court to Expand Voting Rights
by Lorraine Bailey, Court House News, September 15, 2017
CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments Friday in a case centered on whether residents of Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands should be allowed to vote absentee in their former state of residence.
American astronauts in space have a special procedure allowing them to vote, and American citizens living abroad can vote absentee, but five million residents of U.S. territories currently cannot vote for president and have no voting representation in Congress.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of this system, finding that territory residents have no protected right to vote because the territories are “not a part” of the U.S.
However, by some strange quirk, federal law requires all states to allow former residents currently living in the Northern Mariana Islands to vote via absentee ballot. Illinois extends this right to former residents living in American Samoa.
But former residents residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, or Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote absentee.
Six former Illinois residents living in these territories filed suit over this allegedly arbitrary distinction between the territories, seeking the right to cast absentee ballots in their former state. The plaintiffs are represented by We the People, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding voting rights in the territories.
Lead plaintiff Luis Segovia is a U.S. citizen who moved from Illinois to Guam, where he now lives with his family. He served 18 months with the U.S. Army in Iraq, 12 months in Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard, and 10 months in Afghanistan with the Guam National Guard.
His attorney Geoffrey M. Wyatt told the Seventh Circuit on Friday morning that “the law extends the right to vote in certain territories but not others, with no explanation for where the lines are drawn.”
U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton asked whether the differences in absentee voting rights between the territories could be due to their unique political histories.
After all, “there are unique, one-of-a-kind, custom deals with each territory,” Hamilton said.
But Wyatt said there is “no relationship between the Marianas’ unique history and allowing people to vote there.”
“Illinois residents are being treated differently just based on where they moved to,” Wyatt continued.
Carleen M. Zubrzycki, representing the federal government, said that “moving to Puerto Rico is the same as moving to D.C. You give up your right to vote for federal office.”
But when U.S. Circuit Judge Illana Rovner questioned why a former Illinois resident who moved to France may vote absentee, but not if they moved to Guam, Zubrzycki struggled to respond.
She said that Congress might have been concerned about the political conflict that might arise from allowing mainlanders living in the territories to vote absentee, but prohibiting lifelong residents from voting.
Hamilton acknowledged this problem, saying, “Short of a grant of voting right to all residents of the territories – which would be extraordinary – it seems we have to live with some form of discrimination.”
Wyatt urged the Chicago-based appeals court to consider territory residents’ need for a voice in the federal government. He closed by reminding the panel that U.S. Virgin Islanders hit by Hurricane Irma are currently living on federal aid, and residents of Guam have been repeatedly threatened by North Korea.
U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion rounded out the three-judge panel. Patricia Castro represented Illinois.
In an interview after the hearing, Neil Weare, president of We the People, an organization dedicated to equal rights for Americans living in U.S. territories, said he recognized the limitations of seeking to expand voting rights via litigation.
“We recognize that there are solutions the Legislature can offer and solutions the courts can offer,” Weare said. “We are working on political solutions to the larger issue of granting all territory residents the right to vote, but we’re hoping the court will expand rights so that at least some residents may vote.”
It is unclear when the Seventh Circuit will make its decision.