Federal appeals court still deliberating aspects of voting rights and Am Samoa

fili@samoanews.com

American Samoa is again back in federal court, this time at the federal appeals level over a lower court’s decision last year dismissing a voting right lawsuit, which sought to give former residents of Illinois, who are active military personnel residing in Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands,  the right to vote in the election of the US President as well as Illinois’ Congressional race.

US Judge Joan B. Gottschall had focused her decision on American Samoa, which she says has “a unique relationship with the United States” and the reason why the territory remains on an Illinois state election law for overseas absentee voters.

Last August, Gottschall in the first summary judgment motion by the plaintiffs ruled to dismiss the lawsuit. Gottschall then sought comments and arguments in the second, and final part of the lawsuit, which focuses on the treatment of American Samoa under the Illinois Military Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE).

The law allows former residents of Illinois, who are registered voters to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections if they reside in American Samoa — but not other US territories. The plaintiffs, argued that the MOVE statute violates their equal protection rights by excluding former Illinois voters now living in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Additionally, the plaintiffs contend that Illinois’ MOVE and the federal Uniform and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act (“UOCAVA”), infringes upon their substantive due process right to interstate travel.

The court disagreed and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.

While the MOVE statute mirrored the 1979 federal Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act (OCVRA), which considered American Samoa a foreign country, Illinois never amended the MOVE law when the 1979 law was repealed by Congress and replaced with a new Uniform and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) in 1986, according to Gottschall’s decision last November.

And if the MOVE law were amended to reflect the new federal law in 1986, it would consider American Samoa a US territory and thereby former residents of Illinois residing in American Samoa would be prohibited from voting absentee for Illinois in federal elections.

“Under Illinois MOVE, former Illinois residents living in American Samoa may vote by absentee ballot. Had Illinois updated its election laws following the OCVRA’s repeal in 1986 to mirror the newly enacted UOCAVA, these residents of American Samoa would have lost their right to absentee vote,” Gottschall wrote.

“...the court finds that American Samoa’s unique relationship with the United States rationally supports Illinois’ decision” to mirror the OCVRA going back to 1979 and it matters not that Illinois continues to do so almost 40 years later, she added. (See Samoa News edition Nov. 2, 2016 for details.)

APPEAL BRIEFING

On Thursday, the plaintiffs-appellants filed a 69-page briefing appealing the lower court’s decision to the Chicago-based U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Court, which was asked to allow the appeal to proceed and to reverse the lower court’s judgment.

According to the plaintiffs the Illinois legislature offered no justification for its classification in favor of former Illinois residents living in American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), or a foreign country. They also argued that the MOVE law favors treatment of former Illinois citizens residing in American Samoa but such a move does not advance legitimate state interest.

Additionally, American Samoa’s purportedly unique status as something “more like a foreign country” - as referred to by the lower court - does not sustain MOVE’s provisions. They say this justification amounts to little more than an observation that the government desires to treat American Samoa differently.

Plaintiffs went on to note its disagreement with the lower court’s reasoning why Illinois should be permitted to extend the vote to American Samoa  - but not the other Territories - because UOCAVA only sets a floor on which the states are free to build in extending voting rights to former state citizens residing in other Territories.

No date on federal electronic records as to when the appeals court will decide whether to proceed with the appeals process.

Samoa News notes that it’s unclear how many former residents of Illinois residing in American Samoa are eligible to vote absentee for the US President as well as Illinois members to the US Congress.

While American Samoa and other US territories cannot vote in national elections for the president, residents however, have a voice when it comes to selecting a presidential candidate. For example, last year caucuses were held in the territories to select the Republican and Democrat candidates.

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