The Disenfranchised Voters No One Is Talking About: Residents of U.S. Colonies

Hundreds of thousands in Guam and across the U.S. territories will be unable to cast a ballot this November. It’s a stark reminder of America’s brutal colonial legacy.

Tiara R. Na'puti

A pedestrian walks by a mural in Tamuning, Guam. Residents in the American territory of Guam and other U.S. territories won't be able to vote for the presidential election in November. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion approach­es, Amer­i­can lib­er­als and left­ists alike have grown increas­ing­ly con­cerned about the threats of vot­er sup­pres­sion and dis­en­fran­chise­ment. Their fears appear well war­rant­ed. This month alone has seen states impose new bal­lot drop restric­tions, polling lines up to 10 hours long, and the crash of an online vot­er reg­is­tra­tion web­site, to say noth­ing of the president’s inces­sant claims of fraud. Yet on the island Guåhan (Guam), whose slo­gan is where America’s day begins” due to its loca­tion in the Pacif­ic, these anx­i­eties might qual­i­fy as a lux­u­ry. That’s because its res­i­dents have no vot­ing rights when it comes to deter­min­ing the country’s next com­man­der-in-chief, even as they boast some of the high­est enlist­ment lev­els in the U.S. mil­i­tary.

Accord­ing to the Faces of the Fall­en Project, the casu­al­ty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan of sol­diers hail­ing from Guåhan is 450% high­er than that of the nation­al aver­age. The 2010 U.S. Cen­sus indi­cates that thou­sands of vet­er­ans call the ter­ri­to­ry home, and that one out of 20 inhab­i­tants has served in the armed forces. Despite this, local vet­er­ans are not eli­gi­ble to receive access to VA health­care and relat­ed ben­e­fits. Nei­ther do res­i­dents have a say in how the U.S. mil­i­tary occu­pies approx­i­mate­ly 28% of the island, what hap­pens when air­craft car­ri­ers like the USS Roo­sevelt unload thou­sands of coro­n­avirus-infect­ed sailors upon its shores, or whether the U.S. mil­i­tary can con­duct war games dur­ing a Covid lockdown. 

This sum­mer, U.S. Con­gress agreed to increase the military’s bud­get and extend the war in Afghanistan — bipar­ti­san deci­sions made with­out the input of Guåhan or any of the country’s island ter­ri­to­ries. Here­in lies the hypocrisy of an Amer­i­can impe­r­i­al project that wel­comes select cit­i­zens to sac­ri­fice their lives in for­ev­er wars and for­eign con­flicts while deny­ing them a stake in the democ­ra­cy of its nation state. 

In Sep­tem­ber, defy­ing years of local oppo­si­tion and law­suits, the Ninth Cir­cuit upheld a Pen­ta­gon plan for a mas­sive mil­i­tary buildup in Guåhan. This buildup includes an increase in U.S. Navy train­ing exer­cis­es, as well as sonar and weapons test­ing that sub­verts law pro­tect­ing native marine life and will irre­versibly harm both the region and the plan­et. The U.S. mil­i­tary excep­tion­al­ism has also led to the des­e­cra­tion of local bur­ial sites.

It’s basi­cal­ly a ques­tion of whose health and safe­ty mat­ters more…and it’s so frus­trat­ing because we already know the answer to that,” says Kisha Bor­ja-Qui­cho­cho-Cal­vo, an island res­i­dent and mem­ber of the Chamoru women’s orga­ni­za­tion I Hagan Famalao’an Guåhan. We know it’s not us.” 

The U.S. sub­or­di­na­tion of Guåhan stretch­es back over a cen­tu­ry. When the Unit­ed States and Spain end­ed the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in 1898, their gov­ern­ments deter­mined that the island would be ced­ed to the Unit­ed States (along with Puer­to Rico and the Philip­pines). Although the accord end­ed cen­turies of Span­ish colo­nial rule, it mere­ly replaced one occu­py­ing pow­er with anoth­er. The U.S. Navy was tasked with gov­ern­ing the island, and its peo­ples were clas­si­fied alien races” that the Supreme Court’s Insu­lar Cases deter­mined did not war­rant full pro­tec­tions under the con­sti­tu­tion. Like the Span­ish iter­a­tion before it, Amer­i­can rule was met with fierce oppo­si­tion from the Indige­nous Chamoru pop­u­la­tion — an oppo­si­tion that con­tin­ues to push for decol­o­niza­tion to this day. 

In 1950, U.S. Con­gress passed The Organ­ic Act of Guam, which abol­ished naval rule and des­ig­nat­ed Guåhan an unin­cor­po­rat­ed ter­ri­to­ry” of the Unit­ed States. With the stroke of a pen, the island’s entire pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing my grand­par­ents, were made Amer­i­can cit­i­zens with­out their consent.

Like Amer­i­can Samoa, the Com­mon­wealth of the North­ern Mar­i­ana Islands (CNMI), the Vir­gin Islands, and Puer­to Rico, Guåhan has no elec­toral votes. And like these islands, it can only elect a non-vot­ing mem­ber as a del­e­gate to Con­gress. Com­bined, they are home to more than 4.1 mil­lion peo­ple — a num­ber rough­ly equiv­a­lent to the pop­u­la­tion of Ore­gon. But with elec­tions less than three weeks away, there is still almost no dis­cus­sion in the Unit­ed States about how its ter­ri­to­ries are unable to cast a ballot.

For Dr. Ken­neth Gofi­gan Kuper, a Chamoru schol­ar at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Guam, the stakes of this elec­tion rein­force the point that we, in the ter­ri­to­ries, need to address our polit­i­cal sta­tus, which was root­ed in racist thought and impe­ri­al­ism. While the push to extend vot­ing rights for the ter­ri­to­ries can be deemed a pos­si­ble good first step, the larg­er prob­lem is being a colony in 2020. Polit­i­cal sta­tus should be at the forefront.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, vot­ers in the Unit­ed States remain large­ly igno­rant about the territories and its mil­i­tary oper­a­tions while exer­cis­ing more con­trol over Guåhan than its own peo­ple. When main­land res­i­dents are remind­ed of these injus­tices, they are often quick to call for rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy and cham­pi­on full vot­ing rights for the ter­ri­to­ries. But rep­re­sen­ta­tion alone will not jus­ti­fy the U.S. occu­pa­tion of the Pacif­ic or right the wrongs of its war machine. This con­ver­sa­tion can­not begin with the assump­tion that Guåhan mere­ly needs to be includ­ed in the country’s elec­toral process­es. Instead, we must demand that the Chamoru peo­ple be grant­ed their inher­ent right to self-deter­mi­na­tion—to decide their own polit­i­cal future.

What­ev­er the out­come on Novem­ber 3, pro­gres­sives should strive to build a world free of colonies in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Only then can vic­to­ry tru­ly be achieved.

Tiara R. Na’puti is a Chamoru (famil­ian Robat & Kaderon) schol­ar. She is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and an exec­u­tive board mem­ber for the Cen­ter for Native Amer­i­can and Indige­nous Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado Boulder. 

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