A new lawsuit filed by six residents of the Virgin Islands and Guam is challenging laws that prohibit territorial residents from voting for president and a Congressional representative with voting powers, according to a news release from the nonprofit civil rights group Equally American.
Plaintiffs in the Virgin Islands include Ravi Nagi and Laura Castillo Nagi, two attorneys who have raised their children on St. Thomas after moving there from Hawaii 15 years ago. Ravi Nagi is the co-founder of BoltNagi PC, one of the biggest law firms in the Virgin Islands. Laura Castillo Nagi’s practice focuses on family law, and she is also a wellness consultant and coach, according to the news release.
“In 2008, I met Barack Obama and supported his campaign to win the primary in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but I couldn’t vote for him in the general election. Yet if I instead lived in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, or even in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, I actually would be able to vote for president by absentee ballot in my former state of Hawaii,” said Ravi Nagi. “That’s not just absurd, but I believe it is unconstitutional.”
Laura Castillo Nagi noted that her older son will soon turn 18, at which point he will have to register for selective service, making him eligible to be drafted to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“But unlike everywhere else in the United States, this [rite] of passage will not come with him being able to vote for his commander-in-chief,” she said. “If people in the Virgin Islands have the responsibilities that come with U.S. citizenship, we should also have the rights, especially the right to vote.”
According to the news release with more than 98% of the residents of U.S. territories racial or ethnic minorities, “the continued disenfranchisement of these Americans presents an important civil rights and racial justice issue.”
“The territories also have a history of service and sacrifice to the United States, with more than 100,000 veterans currently living in U.S. territories,” the release noted. “Residents of the territories pay more than $3.5 billion a year in federal taxes, but have no say in how those tax dollars are spent.”
Further, it noted that “absentee ballots have become one of the hot-button issues of the 2020 election. However, citizens who move to certain U.S. territories are treated unequally when it comes to being able to vote for president by absentee ballot.”
Under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and state overseas voting laws, former state residents who are now residents of the Northern Mariana Islands or a foreign country are able to continue voting for president and voting representation in Congress by absentee ballot in their former state of residence. But the plaintiffs — each former residents of Hawaii — have lost full enjoyment of their right to vote by virtue of living in Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands, the release states.
Plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorneys Pamela Colon, an attorney in the U.S. Virgin Islands who was a plaintiff in a similar lawsuit, Segovia v. United States; TJ Quan, who grew up on Guam and now practices law in Hawaii; Vanessa Williams, an attorney on Guam; and a team of pro bono attorneys based in Washington, D.C., several of whom were involved in the previous Segovia litigation, according to the news release.
“I am honored to represent the plaintiffs in this important case after having served as a plaintiff myself in Segovia v. United States,” said Colon. “So long as we are required to follow federal law, we should have a say in what that federal law is. No one should be denied the right to vote for President or voting representation in Congress because of their Zip Code.”
Neil Weare is president and Founder of Equally American, which has been trying to make it possible for residents of U.S. territories to be able to vote in presidential elections.
“In a roller coaster year where the President and Congress are making life-and-death decisions related to COVID-19 and other critical issues, it is unjust and absurd that U.S. citizens in the territories have no voice in these fundamental issues simply because of where they live,” he said. “Where you live shouldn’t cost you the right to vote.”
While residents of U.S. territories can’t vote, those who move to a state can.
“There is now a territorial diaspora of than 5 million Americans living in the states who have ties to the territories, whether through family or having actually lived in a territory,” according to the news release. “This territorial diaspora may prove key in determining who wins the 2020 presidential election, with the territorial diaspora in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania greatly exceeding the margin of victory from 2016.”
According to the statement, more than 750,000 U.S. citizens of voting age with ties to the territories live in Florida; 340,000 in Pennsylvania; 75,000 in North Carolina; 70,000 in Georgia; 40,000 in Wisconsin and 30,000 in Arizona and Michigan.”
Ravinder S. Nagi is Assistant Managing Attorney and Chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at BoltNagi PC, a full-service business law firm on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.