Politics & Government

Veterans living in U.S. territories are crowd-funding a legal pitch for voting rights

The Guam delegation is gathered as votes are cast during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 26, 2016.
The Guam delegation is gathered as votes are cast during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 26, 2016. AP

A group of military veterans living in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are crowd-funding their appeal to challenge federal voting laws that deny U.S. citizens living in the territories the ability to vote in presidential elections.

Americans in the U.S. territories follow the same federal laws, pay billions in taxes and have some of the highest rates of enlistment in the U.S. military, but they say their equal protection rights are being violated based on where they live. People born in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are all U.S. citizens.

“I don’t feel that I am a complete person as an American,” said Rodney Cruz, a disabled veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq before his injury in 2008. “I went over, I took a bullet, I did everything that was required of me, but when it comes to electing our commander in chief every four years I’m told, ‘You can’t because you’re a nonvoting citizen.’ ”

A native of Guam, Cruz is the sixth generation in his family to serve in the U.S. military. The nonprofit he founded to help veterans with mental health issues – Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific – is a plaintiff in the case. Every election year while Cruz was deployed, he said, he felt frustrated watching fellow soldiers cast their absentee ballots.

“These guys are wearing the same uniform you’re wearing, but they get to vote for our president,” he said. “What makes us different? How do you expect a lot of people here to stand proud and say, ‘I am an American and I will serve my country?’ ”

The legal battle for their voting rights was dealt a setback last August when a federal judge ruled that six former Illinois residents living in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands did not have the right to cast absentee ballots. The group filing the lawsuit says they represent the 4 million Americans who live on U.S. soil in the territories but can’t vote in presidential elections unless they move to the mainland.

Their appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals got a boost this week when it was selected by CrowdJustice, a platform that crowd-funds for public interest lawsuits. Founded in the United Kingdom in 2015, the organization moved up its U.S. launch to be able to represent two Yemeni brothers who were blocked from entering the country after President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban. This is their second U.S. effort.

“This type of case lends itself very powerfully to our platform,” said Kip Wainscott, head of legal partnerships for CrowdJustice. “These are people unable to use their voice at the ballot box, and we want to help those voices have access to the courts.”

The case for veterans is especially marked in Guam. The Pacific island of fewer than 200,000 residents has the highest number of veterans per capita in the United States – 1 in 8 adults has served in the military. They also have a significantly higher rate of casualties in military service – 4.5 times the national average – while receiving the least in medical funds from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Guam residents, through the island’s political parties, do have a say in the nominating process for presidential candidates, and they have a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Since we don’t have voting representation in Congress, we have to look to the courts to help make sure we are treated equally under the U.S. Constitution,” said Luis Segovia, one of the plaintiffs in the case, who served in Iraq and two deployments in Afghanistan. He became a resident of Guam in 2010.

“When I moved to Guam, I was shocked to learn that a change in ZIP code meant I lost the right to vote for president,” he said.

The lawsuit says Segovia “believes that it is a deep injustice that Guam soldiers are treated as good enough to risk dying to defend democracy, but not good enough to fully enjoy the right to vote.”

Four of the six plaintiffs in the case are military veterans, and one is a veterans advocacy organization. They have taken the lead because they “present a particularly stark case” of the injustice, according to Neil Weare, president of the We the People Project, which advocates for representation for Americans living in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

“The people they served shoulder to shoulder with from other parts of the country voted by absentee ballots, but those in the unit from Guam weren’t able to do that,” Weare said. “Most Americans don’t even realize that the U.S. has these territories and 4 million people live there who are completely disenfranchised.”

Cruz said it was difficult to teach his six children about the importance of the U.S. Constitution and their government while still explaining why they wouldn’t be able to vote for their president when they grew up. It’s especially ironic when they hear their leaders speak about the importance of the civil rights movement and not disenfranchising voters on the mainland, he said. He quoted from a speech that former President Barack Obama gave on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“If Obama said the right to vote was the foundation stone of democracy, we need to live up to our values as Americans, no matter where we live,” he said.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen