Can Puerto Rico Have the Vote without Statehood?

By Howard Hills
The Governor of Guam, Eddie Calvo, is a conservative pro-Trump Republican.  Calvo recently touted his personal relationship with the President as a reason to hope Guam’s vets will get to vote in presidential elections as U.S. citizens who live in states do. In fact, Calvo asked for Puerto Rico’s vets (and those of other U.S. territories) to get the vote, too.
Calvo is still basking in the political euphoria of a call from Trump assuring the U.S. will prevent a missile attack on Guam, after North Korea threatened to nuke the small island territory.  A large U.S. Naval base and a U.S. Air Force base make up most of Guam’s economy. It’s in an important strategic position in the Pacific.
Significant strategic U.S military assets are basically forward positioned on Asia’s doorstep in Guam.  Trump said he figured Guam’s tourist industry would increase “like, tenfold” in the wake of headlines about North Korea’s threats.
No sooner had Calvo boasted about his letter to Trump proposing a vote by veterans than the proposal was shot down like a North Korean test missile by Madeleine Bordallo.  She is the single non-voting Delegate from Guam permitted by Congress to occupy a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The non-voting Congresswoman mocked Governor Calvo for limiting demands for special federal voting privileges outside the states of the union to military veterans in the territory.
Bordallo was soon joined by the editors of the Pacific Daily News in demanding that all everyone born or living in U.S. territories and classified as citizens should have the same voting rights as citizens in the states.

Citizens of States, Not Citizens without a State, Have the Vote

There is a problem with both the emotionally seductive idea of special veteran voting and more grandiose demand for federal voting rights for all of America’s remaining island territories.
The U.S. system of constitutional federalism is a power sharing pact between states.  Voting rights for representation in Congress and the Electoral College are intentionally and purposefully allocated exclusively to citizens of the states.
The idea is to decentralize political power and prevent national majority rule.  Without it, a big state like Texas would always have more power than a small state like Rhode Island. The plan for the United States was to give each state a safe and orderly way to build alliances with other states.
We couldn’t have national unity without rules that create some measure of equality among the states. That “perpetual motion machine” of shifting power flowing between states and the federal government is how the governed consent to federal law.  Only because all state citizens play by the same rules — win or lose — do Americans accept the outcome of our national political process.
If voting representation is no longer a right of state citizenship then each state’s voting power is diminished.  A national majority rule could replace state rights, making statehood itself more symbolic than real. Statehood could potentially become ultimately meaningless.
All current U.S. territories are “unincorporated.” This is a status invented by the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases at the beginning of the 20th century.  It means the U.S. Constitution and U.S. citizenship rights apply in the island territories acquired in the late 1890’s and first decade of the 1900’s only as determined by Congress and the courts.
But even in “incorporated” territories transitioning to statehood, where the U.S. Constitution applies directly by its own force, U.S. citizens do not have federal voting rights until the territory is admitted to the union as a state.  That’s why Americans in 32 territories realized only statehood would end denial of American citizenship rights equal to citizens in the states. Those 32 territories became states. That’s how they got their rights to vote.

Territories Are Not Equal

Guam is home to a strong tradition of American patriotism, where the American way of life is embraced.  It also is the home of an “Equally American” political lobbying and litigation project.
This so-called non-profit fundraising organization espouses the myth that the U.S. Constitution can be in effect amended by Congress and/or the federal courts by legal sleight of hand.  The goal is to shift voting rights from citizens in the states to persons with U.S. nationality and citizenship who do not reside in a state or otherwise possess the rights and privileges of state citizenship.
The lesson of our union’s history is that American citizens without a state aspiring to fully equal citizenship rights must seek integration into an existing state, or organize as a territory able to seek admission as a new state.
I served in the Guam government and worked with the current Governor of Guam’s father, former Governor Paul Calvo.   I think the Governor Calvo  who I knew would agree with Madeleine Bordallo that calling for votes for veterans but not the rest of the U.S. citizen population of the territory is a bad idea.
Veterans might like the idea at first, but on reflection would not agree that their service gives them greater rights than those they serve.
Eddie Calvo was quick to recognize his mistake, saying a vet vote was “gradualism” until a vote can be achieved for the general population.
The Pacific Daily News instead supports Bordallo’s proposal for a “constitutional amendment” to give Guam federal voting rights.  That shows how dazed and confused Guam’s leader have become under the vagaries of the current 1950 Organic Act regime of territorial government.
All incomplete measures only make things worse, by causing the U.S. and Guam to believe territorial status with less than equal civil rights and political status can be an acceptable alternative to statehood.
The only constitutional amendment that would democratize Guam would have to create government by consent of the governed equal to states. At that point, why not statehood?
I was a civilian with wife and kids, living and working in Guam back in 1981 when I took the oath as a Navy officer.  I did not serve on active duty for 8 years because I wanted to vote in presidential elections.
The patriotic service of veterans from territories was never conditional on incorporation into the union leading to statehood.  It goes so much deeper, something Eddie Cavo should understand.  I know his dad would.
Howard Hills served as lead counsel in the Executive office of President for territorial status policy in Congress, the federal courts and in U.N. Security Council proceedings. For his service Hills was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Joint Services Commendation Medal. Hills previously also served as Assistant Executive Director of the Guam Legislature’s Law Revision Commission. Hills is the author of Citizens Without A State.

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