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Senate committee hears more testimony on voting rights for long-term residents

Laolagi Savali Vaeao

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Senate Joint Resolution on the qualifications for some long-term residents to become electors was the subject of review during a public hearing, held last week Thursday, that heard not only from the public, but also from senators in their discussion of possible adjustments that could be made to the Constitutional amendment being proposed.

The proposed joint resolution would allow non-citizens who reside in American Samoa for over 20 years or are married to a US National and a taxpayer, the eligibility to vote. 

The first three witnesses that testified on the joint resolution did not support it. (Read story in Samoa News issue, Friday, Sept, 15, 2023.)

However, the testimony that followed was in support of the joint resolution.

Laolagi Savali Vaeao, who is the Governor's Liaison Officer to the Fono, was there speaking in his capacity as a member of the public, and was the first witness supporting the resolution.

He told Senators he's grateful for it, suggesting to prepare it well and solidify it.

(Samoa News notes that Laolagi is a former District Governor, former Senator and former Faipule, who also served as a House Vice Speaker.)

"Like if my sister or a brother is married to someone from Samoa, and have lived here more than 20 years, served the territory and paid taxes, bear children who are eligible voters, but one of the parents can not vote, then something is missing.”

He pointed out the consequences of such resolution, but American Samoa has the power to protect it.

Chairman Senator Togiola Tulafono of the Senate Joint Resolution Committee reminded Laolagi, there’s two parts to the Resolution. 

One: Not all permanent residents are qualified, only those who are married to American Samoans; and Second: A permanent resident that resides in American Samoa for over 20 years, and is a taxpayer.

“Do you still support the resolution?” he asked.

Laolagi said yes, "It's a good resolution but needs justifications."

Senator Ponemafua Tapeni didn't plan on asking a question, but something came into his mind, where he revealed his dual origins.

 "My mother is from Savaii and my father is a man from Tutuila. Mum had worked as a teacher and served American Samoa for 40 years. Her voice still echoes in my ears."  

His mom would tell his dad, "again you're going to vote, what about me?"

Sen. Ponemafua said, “Now she's passed, but I still hear her end voice about not being able to vote.”

He then asked the witness, Lalolagi, "What do you think, isn't that enough for us to vote on behalf of our mothers, as we are voters?

“The resolution won't do any good for our mother, but for those who are still working.”

Laolagi disagreed with the Senator, saying “for us, US Nationals, it's easy for us to apply for a US citizenship, compared to those from Western Samoa, without this (resolution) they'll live here without voting eligibility.”

A Committee member pointed out the aim of the resolution is for the future.

As for the US Nationals they can easily gain US citizenship, but without this resolution, the [Western] Samoans would just live here.

Togiola also spoke of his mother — confessing that even his late mother wanted to vote but she couldn't.

He also mentioned that even the Senate President whispered the same. "Na maliu lava si ou tina o fia palota ae e lei mafai. Faapena foi le Peresetene o lea e musumusu mai."

Togiola asked the witness, if he would support adjustments to the second criteria, that asked to be a resident for over 20 years, married to a US National, but hadn't worked for 20 consecutive years — what if the taxpayer had served the family, church, territory and the government of American Samoa for 20 years?

The witness in response remained supportive of the resolution, suggesting, it’s a must to have it well prepared.

Senator Olo Uluao Letuli pointed at section seven of the resolution, where it allows only residents who are married to US Nationals.

"What about a 20 plus-year resident who had unfortunately missed out on marrying a US National? Wouldn't that be discrimination on our part?

The resolution begins from here, stated the witness. It specifically mention, being married, but the final amendments for a good resolution also come from this house.

 Togiola reminded the hearing allowing permanent residents voting eligibility isn't new.

It was originally brought into the Fono in 1998 , but it was in its general form like what Senator Olo said, for those with approved 20 plus years of residency to vote.

Togiola again emphasized the two main points of the current resolution.

The proposed amendment would allow non-citizens who reside in American Samoa for over 20 years or are married to a US National and a taxpayer, the eligibility to vote.

Senator Tuiasina Salamo Laumoli pointed out, what if the parents of a voting US National who was born locally, is from Korea or China? Compare that to a Samoan that had migrated here 40 years ago, a taxpayer for 20 years, and couldn't vote?

 The other supporting witness was Iakopo Westerland. Who said he is a "faifeau," currently serving in the village of Leone. He announced that he'd be a qualified voter if the resolution passes.

Explaining his reasons for support, "I have worked for our government since 1999. I'm grateful that my wife is a one parent.”

“They left the territory for an overseas mission and have returned for five years now.

Pastor Iakopo is married with children. His wife is a One Parent and is currently awaiting US National status being processed. He fully supports the proposed resolution, specifically with the Samoans eligibilities.

(Samoa News should point out that you are born a US National, because you are born on American Samoan soil. If you are an alien in American Samoa, you can only apply for residency in the Territory, not change of citizenship.)

Another witness in support of the joint resolution, Mrs Moomia, remembers well, her connections to American Samoa, besides working for TAOA, she said, her father is from Tutuila while her mother is a Brown from Upolu.

She told the Fono, her father originates from Fagasa and Nuuuli, from the family of SalaTuiga, and Sala Samiu had tried to help her with her local status.

“That was from 1966- 1969 we were still seeking help with our local connection.”

  Her parents were Kose and Faafeu, who grew up in Fagasa Village, in the family of Sala and Tatupu.

Her father's brother is Selega, who she is now serving (tautua). Mrs Moomia, 74, is married to a Tuitama from Faleasi'u she said.  

 Asked if she's a voter, she said "No, I'm still serving."

Gloria Faleafine Samana Ausage told the Senate Joint Resolution Committee the importance for her in support of the resolution.

"My in-laws are from Upolu and Savaii. Her husband's father has retried from the [local] Department of Education.  

“His other brother Teleiai Ausage is working at the Historic Preservation Office.

“His sister teaches at Samoana High School, while the other one serves in the Senate House. 

“They all help the family business. 

“Of all her in-law siblings, her husband was the only one that made the right decision of marrying someone from Tutuila.”

Her late father-in-law was 82 and was without an eligibility to vote, despite his many years of service in the government and in the Department of Education.

She also supports witness Laolagi, to leave it to you for amendments, as there are versions where it only qualifies Samoans married to US Nationals, or one parent.  

But for her, she fully supports the proposed resolution.

Another witness for the resolution, Touli Filipi, of Malaeimi, told the Senate Committee that this resolution is God's given opportunity for him to voice his appreciation of the current Leaders of American Samoa.

He said he's been living in American Samoa for about 40 years, and has two children, who are currently serving the US government.