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Americans Living In The Caribbean Push For Right To Vote In Territories… Immigrants Join Call… U.S.Virgin Islander Vows To Continue Hunger Strike Despite Responses From White House, Kerry Campaign

U.S. Virgin Islands Leads Push For Right To Vote In Territories

By Matthew Hay Brown

August 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

U.S. citizens living in the Caribbean are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give the residents of all U.S. overseas territories the right to vote for president.

The movement has emerged not in Puerto Rico, the largest and most politically vocal territory, but from its smaller, quieter neighbor: the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Though the change would take years, Donna Christian-Christensen, the Virgin Islands' delegate to Congress, calls it a simple question of fairness, made clearer now by the deployment of island soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq under a commander-in-chief they didn't elect.

"Every conflict this country has been in, we have sent our young men and women to serve or to die in, per capita, some of the highest numbers you will find," said Christian-Christensen, a Democrat. "While our nation is at war, and we're burying our soldiers just like everybody else, I think that maybe it's a timely point at which to introduce this."

The proposed amendment, which Christian-Christensen outlined in a joint resolution co-sponsored last month by her counterparts in American Samoa and Guam, would extend voting rights to the 4.3 million U.S. citizens living in those territories, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Absent among the co-sponsors is Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a Democrat who represents 3.9 million of those citizens in Congress as resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, where any effort to gain the presidential vote is likely to get caught up in the divisive debate over the island's political relations with the United States.

Staff members of the two delegates have discussed the proposal, and Christian-Christensen is hoping for Acevedo Vilá's support. Acevedo Vilá's pro-commonwealth party has criticized past efforts by statehood supporters in Puerto Rico to secure the presidential vote. Now running for governor, he could not be reached for comment.

The measure faces other obstacles, including unresolved questions about how the territories would be counted in the electoral college, whether residents would then have to pay federal income tax and whether Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, would extend the vote to a largely Democratic population.

To pass, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of the House and the Senate and then ratified within seven years by three-quarters of the states.

"My own frank opinion is that this is something that is a symbolic gesture," said Paul Leary, professor emeritus of political science at the University of the Virgin Islands. "People are unhappy that they don't get to vote, they don't really understand why, and the delegate is running for re-election."

Former Virgin Islands delegate Ron de Lugo, who introduced similar measures in the 1980s and '90s to draw attention to the territories, doubts the measure will actually secure the vote, but said he lauds the effort.

"Anything that can make anyone a little more aware of the fact that the United States has territories and commonwealths and free associated states, and U.S. citizens that reside there, and provide soldiers to the armed forces is positive," he said.

Christian-Christensen acknowledges the challenges.

"I'm not saying it's an easy process, but I think it's a very clear process," she said. "We intend to move it forward, really. This is not just a message bill. It's not just window dressing in a political year. ... I think that you will see a very concerted effort by the territories at the beginning of next year to have this done."

The delegate drew cheers last month at the Democratic National Convention with a call for a nation "where all Americans, in the states or its offshore areas, can vote as every other American does for our commander in chief." Gov. Charles Turnbull, also at the convention, joined the call for the presidential vote.

Residents of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, including those who have moved there from the mainland United States, do not vote for president. The first four each send a single nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.

The effort recalls a federal lawsuit filed in Puerto Rico before the 2000 elections by a pro-statehood attorney who argued that islanders were entitled as U.S. citizens to vote for president. A federal judge agreed and ordered the government to prepare ballots, but the decision was reversed.

Gregorio Igartúa de la Rosa, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said he supports the right of U.S. citizens to vote for president, but said amending the Constitution is slow and unnecessary.

"We don't have to wait for a constitutional amendment," said Igartúa, who has filed another lawsuit on the issue. "We already have the right, and the court can give us that right."

In contrast to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, a quiet island group of 110,000 residents that was purchased from Denmark in 1917, seems an unlikely hothouse for change. But Christian-Christensen said she thinks her proposed amendment enjoys broad support.

"It hasn't been a burning issue, but it comes up a lot," she said.

"This is a very fundamental right. I think it is a right that all U.S. citizens should have."

Immigrants Raise Call For Right To Be Voters


August 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

ASHINGTON, Aug. 8 - For months, the would-be revolutionaries plotted strategy and lobbied local politicians here with the age-old plea, "No taxation without representation!" Last month, some of the unlikely insurgents - Ethiopian-born restaurateurs, travel agents and real estate developers in sober business suits - declared that victory finally seemed within reach.

Five City Council members announced their support for a bill that would allow thousands of immigrants to vote in local elections here, placing the nation's capital among a handful of cities across the country in the forefront of efforts to offer voting rights to noncitizens.

"It will happen,'' said Tamrat Medhin, a civic activist from Ethiopia who lives here. "Don't you believe that if people are working in the community and paying taxes, don't you agree that they deserve the opportunity to vote?''

Calling for "democracy for all," immigrants are increasingly pressing for the right to vote in municipal elections. In Washington, the proposed bill, introduced in July, would allow permanent residents to vote for the mayor and members of the school board and City Council.

In San Francisco, voters will decide in November whether to allow noncitizens - including illegal immigrants - to vote in school board elections. Efforts to expand the franchise to noncitizens are also bubbling up in New York, Connecticut and elsewhere. Several cities, including Chicago, and towns like Takoma Park, Md., already allow noncitizens to vote in municipal or school elections.

But in most cities, voting remains a right reserved for citizens, and the prospects for the initiatives in Washington and San Francisco remain uncertain. The proposals have inspired fierce opposition from critics who say the laws would undermine the value of American citizenship and raise security concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Washington's mayor, Anthony Williams, has expressed his support for extending voting rights to permanent residents, but has yet to garner a majority of supporters on the 13-member City Council. In San Francisco, critics have questioned whether the law would violate the state's Constitution.

In this city, where Ethiopian restaurants and El Salvadoran travel agents dot many urban streets, advocates argue that permanent residents are paying taxes and fighting and dying for the United States as soldiers in Iraq while lacking a voice in local government. They describe the ban on immigrant voting as akin to the kind of taxation without representation that was a major cause of the American Revolution.

They also note that the United States has a long history of allowing noncitizens to vote. Twenty-two states and federal territories at various times allowed noncitizens to vote - even as blacks and women were barred from the ballot box - in the 1800's and 1900's.

Concerns about the radicalism of immigrants arriving from southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led states to restrict such voting rights. By 1928, voting at every level had been restricted to United States citizens. Today, some argue, those rights should be restored to noncitizens.

"They're paying taxes, they're working, they're contributing to our prosperity,'' said Jim Graham, the councilman who introduced the bill here. "And yet they're not able to exercise the franchise.

"This is part of our history. A lot of people don't know what the history of this nation is in terms of immigrant voting; they don't understand even that localities can determine this issue. It's a very healthy discussion.''

Critics counter that the proposed laws would make citizenship irrelevant and pledges of allegiance to the United States meaningless. It is a touchy political issue, particularly in an election year when many politicians across party lines are lobbying for support from Hispanic voters, and many politicians have tried to sidestep it altogether.

Democrats have most often sponsored the initiatives, but some also oppose them. In Washington, where Congress has the right to override city laws, some Republicans said they would try to overturn the immigrant voting bill if it passed.

"Is it really too much to ask that American citizenship be a prerequisite for voting in American elections?'' Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, asked in a letter to members of Congress last month.

"One of the things that differentiates American citizenship from simple residency is the right to vote,'' said Mr. Tancredo, who rallied opposition to the bill. "The passage of this measure would not only blur that distinction, it would erase it - allowing as many as 40,000 aliens in the District of Columbia to vote.''

In San Francisco, some critics have also argued that the proposals raise security concerns. Louise Renne, a former city attorney in San Francisco and a longtime critic of the concept, recently raised the question of whether terrorists would soon be allowed access to the polls. "If noncitizens can vote,'' she asked reporters, "can Osama bin Laden vote in a school election?"

Advocates for noncitizen voting rights dismiss concerns about threats to national security, noting that several countries, including Belgium and Ireland, allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. New Zealand allows permanent residents to vote in local and national elections.

They argue that immigrants will still aspire to citizenship because it is the only way they can vote in federal elections. And having the right to vote, they argue, will help noncitizens feel more politically engaged and committed to this country.

"A lot of communities are not represented by representatives who reflect the diversity in their communities and are responsive to their needs,'' said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and an advocate for immigrant voting rights. "It raises basic fundamental questions about democracy.''

In Washington, Connie Mann, a 44-year-old permanent resident from Namibia, is already dreaming of voting for the mayor. Sergio Luna of Guatemala, a community outreach specialist for the city, hopes to improve this city's struggling schools, where his son is a student. "If we have the opportunity to vote for the school board, the Council and the mayor, we'll be making some changes,'' he said.

Mr. Graham, who was applauded by his Ethiopian supporters last week for introducing the voting legislation here, says he believes the bill will become law, even if it not this year. He says he needs the support of only two more members of the Council and is working to woo them, even if that means reintroducing the legislation next year. Lobbying Congress, he said, would be the next step. "This is not a 50-yard dash issue,'' he said. "This is an issue you just have to keep working on.''

U.S. Virgin Islander Vows To Continue Hunger Strike For Voting Rights Despite Responses From White House, Kerry Campaign


August 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) - A Virgin Islander vowed Wednesday to continue a 10-day-old hunger strike for the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections despite responses from the White House and the John Kerry campaign.

Edward Browne, 29, last ate solid food Aug. 1 and has lost more than 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms). He said previously he would remain on the hunger strike until U.S. President George W. Bush or Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, addressed his call for voting rights for those living in U.S. territories.

A White House spokeswoman and a spokesman for Kerry's campaign responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press about Browne's hunger strike, but they did not take a position on the issue. Browne was not contacted by the officials.

"Mr. Browne should be lauded for his heartfelt conviction and commitment to this cause," said Kerry campaign spokesman Anthony Coley, though he stopped short of endorsing Browne's stance.

Bush's position on the issue will depend on the findings of a task force he reactivated in December to explore future options for Puerto Rico's status, said White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis. President Bill Clinton created the task force in 2000.

The task force is to consider all options in studying whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, an independent nation or remain a U.S. commonwealth. Results from the inquiry, which are expected next year, will affect policy toward other territories, DeFrancis said.

Browne said he appreciated the responses, but would continue his liquid diet because he felt U.S. policy was unfair to people from U.S. territories who serve in the military. He said he would only end the hunger strike when a high-ranking military official visited the territories and thanked war veterans.

"I'm all about the veterans now," said Browne, who lives in St. Croix, the largest island in the U.S. Caribbean territory.

U.S. citizens who maintain an address on the mainland while living in U.S. territories must choose between voting in local elections or the U.S. presidential elections. Those without mainland addresses cannot vote for president.

There are 110,000 residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and more than 4 million living in the other U.S. possessions of Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa. The territories don't pay federal income taxes although their residents are U.S. citizens.

Browne, who has voted in past elections while living in Colorado, has been on a water and vegetable juice diet.

Army Maj. Clifford Cooke, 45, who returned home to St. Croix in May after serving in Afghanistan, said he doesn't feel cheated by not being able to vote since the territories don't pay federal income taxes.

"If I'm going to be taxed, then I have the right to vote. If not, then I don't," Cooke said.

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