The Organic Act of Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States, grants the people of Guam and their descendants U.S. citizenship, but they are not allowed to vote for the United States vice president and president.
Today, the people of Guam are still fighting to gain the rights to vote on the United States presidential ticket. Dr. Robert Underwood, a former congressional delegate of Guam who is also seeking to run another term in this year’s election, calls Guam’s inability to participate in the presidential election “un-American.”
“Why can a U.S. citizen residing in Mexico vote for the president, but we, in the U.S. territories can’t? [It] is unfair,” continued Underwood. “There are two strategies that can change that, and one is by eliminating the Electoral College.”
Underwood explained eliminating the Electoral College would remove barriers to voting for the president, allowing for the office to be chosen by popular vote. Alternatively, the creation of another constitutional amendment that would allow the territories to vote for the president would be an additional strategy to enfranchise Guam. While both options would be very difficult to do, he believes the stronger argument is for the American public to get rid of the Electoral College because “for the past 20 years, we had two elections where the person who earned the most votes didn’t get in, and that’s because of the Electoral College.”
There have been five instances where the president of the United States was voted in office by the Electoral College but lost in the popular votes: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016. However, as the Electoral College is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, abolishing it would require a constitutional amendment, which is a complicated process requiring the votes of two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-fourths of the states.
Efforts to change Guam’s political status aren’t new. In his essay exploring Guam’s political relationship with the U.S., Underwood wrote how “the Ford administration was prepared to discuss the possibility of a new political relationship with Guam under an arrangement no less favorable than that offered to the Mariana Islands.” In 1975, the Northern Mariana Islands, located just north of Guam, became a commonwealth, which granted the islands the right to govern their own international affairs but still maintain a relationship with the United States.
However, the U.S. Department of Interior was too slow to act upon the president’s directive, and Guam held a referendum in 1976 that resulted in the decision for Guam’s Territorial State to remain with improvements with 51% of the votes. Later that year, Congress passed legislation to allow Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands to hold a Constitutional Convention to replace the Organic Act that functioned as a constitution for U.S. territories. But in 1979, the electorate voted this down, arguing that the “political status should come first, then the constitution.”
“The issue of voting for president is part of our unequal treatment,” said Dr. Michael Bevacqua, communication specialist under Guam Senator Kelly Marsh, and CHamoru activist. “But rather than having Electoral College votes, I would prefer it if the people of Guam, and in particular the CHamoru people, were given the chance to voice what they would want next for their political status.”
Bevacqua is well-known on Guam as an outspoken advocate for Guam’s independence from the United States. He notes how Guam’s status as a territory is one of the many contradictions of the US. While the country holds ideals such as liberty, democracy, and the right to vote as central to America’s identity, those ideals no long apply once one enters the territories.
“It is telling that the supposedly greater country in the world has had colonies for more than a century and has made little to no effort to decolonize them, and assist them in achieving a new and real status of self-governance,” added Bevacqua. “I want that right to decide what we want first, before we get to the question of who we want to vote for the president.”
“We should have the right to vote for president because although our economies do not mix (Guam tax stays in Guam, but it does not go to federal tax) the president of the U.S. still has some jurisdiction over our governance,” said Jermaine D. Quichocho, a soon-to-be federal employee with the Navy Exchange Guam Administrative Support.
Guam is itself politically divided over the question of whether or not to remain a U.S. territory and advocate for more rights, or to decolonize and become independent. Quichocho, who supports Guam remaining under the binds of the U.S. Constitution, notes how independence from the U.S. poses some issues. Guam is still considered a hotspot for other militia forces and relies heavily on protection from the U.S. military. The memory of the Japanese occupation during World War II still looms as a recent example. Additionally, Guam doesn’t have its own currency, and would have to develop an independent government that would allow things to continue running much in the same way they do now. Quichocho points to a recent issue when tax refunds weren’t released, and the U.S. government was required to step in and regulate the issue.
Juli Bautista, a sales associate living on Guam said that if there was a movement to push voting rights for U.S. citizens in U.S. territories, she would gladly take part. “Because we are U.S. citizens of the United States, and we have to abide by their laws, we [should] have the right to vote for the president [and] who has a say over island. It’s not fair!”
Advocates for Guam to have voting rights rather than to decolonize like Quichocho argue that demonstrations for independence are less likely to make a difference for Guam than having a strong representative in Congress who will advocate for Guam’s people.
“In order for us to truly pledge allegiance to the United States, we, as a community, have to realize that decolonization isn’t in the best interest for our island,” said Quichocho. “The decolonization commission would need to be disbanded. There is a possibility I would take part in an organization to vote for president.”