PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA —
This November 8, Judith Won Pat, a U.S. citizen who lives in Guam, will wake up, drive to her polling place, and enthusiastically cast her vote for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
For Won Pat, who has served for decades as a local politician in the U.S. Pacific island territory, it is a historic opportunity to cast a ballot to put a woman in the White House for the first time in history.
Or it would be, if her vote counted.
Won Pat is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. On Tuesday, she joined other delegates in making Hillary Clinton the party’s nominee. But when the convention is over, so is her involvement in the presidential election.
Guam is one of several U.S. territories around the world where the U.S. Constitution denies citizens the right to vote for president in the general election.
More than 4 million Americans are deprived of voting rights in these territories, which also include Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
In Guam, they go ahead with the vote anyway, with each party holding a meaningless straw poll that is as much an act of protest as it is an act of democracy.
“We symbolically do it every year and send our votes" to the Democratic National Committee, says Won Pat, a native "Chamorro" resident of Guam. "But it doesn’t do anything.”
Won Pat, the speaker of Guam’s legislature, says she feels like a “second-class citizen” when it comes to voting rights.
Her comments echo the sentiments of many other residents of the territories, who like Won Pat, spoke to VOA from the floor of the convention, where they are serving as delegates.
“This is the only part of the election process that Puerto Ricans can participate in,” says Luis Benitez, a delegate from Puerto Rico, by far the biggest of the territories. “This is the closest thing to democracy that a 100-year-old colony has.”
But as evidenced by their participation in the Democratic convention, residents of the territories do enjoy some voting rights.
Under the Constitution, territory residents are allowed to participate in the primary election, which determines each major party’s presidential nominee. They are also allowed to vote for local leaders and can send a non-voting representative to Congress.
But when it comes to the presidential general election, they are shut out.
In the U.S. electoral system, no citizen technically votes for the president. In reality, when people go to the polls in the general election, they are really voting for electors, or representatives, who in turn cast the deciding vote for the president several weeks later.
Those electors are assigned to each state, based on their population. But if a territory does not qualify as a state, then it doesn’t get any electors, and therefore cannot vote for the president.
As a result, millions of citizens in the territories are denied a right that many Americans consider fundamental.
A territory is not a state
It’s an issue that didn’t arise until the U.S. began acquiring overseas territories, says Neil Weare, a civil rights attorney who advocates for equal rights and representation in the U.S. territories.
“But since the U.S. decided it’s OK to have territories that aren’t on the path to statehood, it creates this situation that’s very much like the original 13 U.S. colonies and the British parliament,” Weare explains.
“You have Congress and the president making rules for residents of the territories, but they have no say in deciding what those rules are,” he says.
Weare heads up the We The People Project, which is currently involved in a federal district court case, arguing that the right to vote as an American should not depend on where a person lives.
The group is also proposing a constitutional amendment to resolve the issue. That’s an option Weare says is very possible. As evidence, he cites the 23rd amendment, which granted presidential electors to the District of Columbia, despite its status as a non-state.
In Philadelphia, the Democratic Party platform calls for full voting rights to be extended to citizens who live in the territories. The Republican platform, adopted a week earlier at the party convention in Cleveland, calls for essentially the same thing. But Won Pat says there are so few territorial residents, party elders do not make it a priority.
Despite bipartisan support, there has been a lack of progress on the issue. And some people chalk that up to racial discrimination, since the overwhelming majority of residents of the U.S. territories are racial or ethnic minorities.
“If we were Irish-Americans, we would have become a state a long time ago; I have no doubt about that,” opines Carlos Ramirez Barcelo, the former governor of Puerto Rico. “We would have the right to vote and the right to equal opportunity.”
Barcelo, a Puerto Rico delegate to the Democratic convention, is one of the main proponents of statehood for the territory and its almost 3.6 million U.S. citizens.
Not all Puerto Ricans agree that statehood is the best way forward. Some prefer independence. Still, Barcelo says the time has never been so ripe to make progress on the voting issue.
“Next year, on March 2, will mark 100 years that we have been disenfranchised U.S. citizens. One hundred years,” he repeats. “I think it’s about time the nation recognizes us.”