The US election that doesn’t count: Guam goes to the polls but votes won’t matter

Politics is a favourite sport on the streets of Hagatna, where voters are preparing for the US elections.

Billboards adorn every street corner and conversations are dominated by candidates and their policies. But when Guamanians go to the polls on 3 November and mark down their preference for president, their “votes” won’t count.

Despite being American citizens, an anomaly in US law means the residents of the island, which lies in the Pacific Ocean 8,000 miles from Washington, have no say as to who runs their country.

They vote for a local legislature, a governor, and a delegate to the US House of Representatives – a delegate who cannot vote – but their choice for president, marked on the same ballot, carries no weight.

Guam’s is a straw poll: a non-binding four-yearly exercise that serves merely as an early barometer for how the rest of the nation will vote.

Guam residents are among the 4 million disenfranchised Americans living in US territories who can’t vote for president. And being left out of the election stings.

“I am deeply unhappy that as a US citizen formerly residing on the mainland, I have to give up my voting rights for president simply by moving to another part of the US,” James Hofman, a corporate lawyer who moved to Guam from California in 2006, told The Guardian.

Guam, “where America’s day begins” – as the island’s slogan goes – is 14 hours ahead of Washington, DC.

“It might have some symbolic value, but until there is a direct nexus between our political will and some reciprocal action and engagement by DC it’s not very meaningful,” Hofman said of the straw poll.

‘Where America’s day begins’. Tumon Bay near the Guamanian capital, Hagåtña.
‘Where America’s day begins’. Tumon Bay near the Guamanian capital, Hagåtña. Photograph: Tassanee Vejpongsa/AP

While they may not be as emotionally invested in the presidential election as they are in local politics, the island’s voters don’t mind taking the time to pick their choice for president for what it’s worth.

“If you’re already in the voting booth, you might as well register your opinion. What’s one more oval to shade?” Tes Venzon, an accountant from Agana Heights, said.

Tony Azios, spokesperson for Progressive Democrats of Guam, said the presidential straw vote “amounts to little more than a fun activity and a quirky quadrennial [news] item”.

But Guam’s straw-poll has proven a remarkable bellwether: in every election from 1984 to 2012, Guamanians voted for the ultimate presidential winner. In 2016, the island backed Hillary Clinton, the winner of the popular vote.

Guam’s exclusion from national elections is a political anomaly that some find baffling, given that American citizens living abroad are eligible to vote by absentee ballot.

“It was very simple for me in 2008 to send in my ballot by mail while living in South Korea,” Azios said. “But now that I live in Guam, which has been a part of the United States for roughly 120 years, I cannot vote. It’s absurd.”

While some are consoled with Guam’s exemption from paying the federal income tax, many believe such a waiver is not commensurate to the island’s oft-repeated strategic importance to national defence.

Guam, which is home to naval and air force bases, is known as the “tip of the US military spear,” and, with a burgeoning Chinese presence in the Pacific, it will grow increasingly geo-strategically valuable.

In coming years, around 5000 marines will be relocated to Guam from Okinawa in Japan as part of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific troop realignment program.

Guamanians enlist in the US military at a higher rate than any US state. One in every 20 of Guam’s 165,000 residents is a military veteran, according to the US census.

“So why shouldn’t we be able to help select the commander-in-chief?” Azios asked.

The island of Guam is dominated by the US airforce’s Andersen Air Force Base. And Guamanians enlist at a higher rate than any state in the US. But residents of Guam, despite being US citizens, are not allowed to vote for their commander-in-chief.
The island of Guam is dominated by the US airforce’s Andersen Air Force Base. And Guamanians enlist at a higher rate than any state in the US. But residents of Guam, despite being US citizens, are not allowed to vote for their commander-in-chief. Photograph: US Air Force/Reuters

Guam’s only formal participation in national elections are the state caucuses held by the island’s Republican and Democratic parties, to choose delegates to send to the parties’ national conventions.

Guam is one of the 16 remaining colonies in the 21st century – alongside other US territories such Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and US Virgin Islands – whose representatives to the US Congress does not have a voting power.

The island’s representative can introduce bills and push for the territory’s agenda at the congressional committee level, but has no vote on the floor.

“I consider myself an American and if you want my personal opinion, of course I want to vote for president,” said Senator Wil Castro, a Republican who is running for the representative seat.

“But I am not going to take it upon myself to assume that every Guamanian wants to vote for president. We might have to consult the legislature and the governor before pushing for a congressional agenda. It’s not for me to decide.”

Last month, six residents of Guam and the US Virgin Islands sued the US government in federal court, challenging the territories’ exclusion from presidential elections.

“The next congress may have an historic opportunity to finally address the denial of voting rights to the nearly 4 million US citizens who live in territories,” said Neil Weare, founder of Equally American, a nonprofit group that advocates for the political rights of US territories.

“Whether it takes statehood or a constitutional amendment, congress and the president must act to end over 120 years of disenfranchisement.”

The Guardian

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