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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

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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.

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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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