Politics

The Biggest Issues in the Places Where Americans Can’t Vote for President

Residents of America’s overseas territories won’t get to pick the next president, but here’s what they have to say to him.

Maps of the U.S. territories hang over the White House.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PeterHermesFurian/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Srikanta H. U/Unsplash.

More than 3.5 million people live in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, but—by design—they don’t have much political power when it comes to national politics. They hold presidential primaries and caucuses and appear in the roll calls at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, but they can’t vote in the general election, when it matters most. (Some exceptions apply: Northern Marianas residents who previously lived in the states can vote in the election, as can American Samoa residents who moved there from Illinois. It’s complicated!) The territories have zero senators, and each territory elects just one representative to the U.S. House, where they can serve on committees but can’t vote on any actual bills—again, shut out when it matters most—even though Congress holds ultimate power over all laws affecting the territories.

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But the lack of power within this convoluted system of—let’s call it what it is—modern-day colonialism, doesn’t mean there’s a lack of political activism. Within each territory, there’s plenty of political organizing, often originating at a grassroots level, from last year’s mass “Ricky Renuncia” protests in Puerto Rico, which led to the governor’s resignation, to the community groups on Guam leading a movement to stop the proposed buildup of the territory’s military bases.

There are also, of course, plenty of people who would like to have their voices heard in national-level politics. Slate spoke to five of them—one from each territory—about some key issues they’d want a future president to understand and address.

Natalie Caraballo, Puerto Rico

It’s been three years since Hurricane Maria hit the USA’s largest territory, killing thousands of people (the exact number remains unknown), knocking out power for months, and causing nearly $100 billion in damage. Natalie Caraballo, the executive director of the nonprofit Proyecto 85, which promotes gender parity and representation in Puerto Rican politics, says that recovery and reconstruction remains one of top issues for territory.* “We still have a bunch of people with blue tarps on their roofs,” she says, “and we have a huge problem with our power electric system. I live in the [San Juan] area and if it rains, most likely I’m going to be without power for a few hours or so.”

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The issue wasn’t just the storm itself. As Caraballo notes (and as a significant amount of reporting backs up), the inadequate federal and local response to the storm was  “the real disaster.” It was only a few weeks ago, for example, that the Trump administration—perhaps with its eye on tight polls in Florida—allocated $13 billion for rebuilding infrastructure in Puerto Rico. “We want to see a president that has actual commitment to the reconstruction and recovery of the island,” Caraballo says.

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As for the reconstruction proposals she’s seen from the Biden administration, she says, “looks good. But personally, I’m skeptical because we have seen so many U.S. politicians’ promises on Puerto Rico being unfulfilled. So, we would like those promises to be taken seriously and [for politicians] to actually work” on the issues once elected.

Asiah Clendinen, U.S. Virgin Islands

A bleak headline ran in the Virgin Islands Consortium in March that read “Retirees Doomsday: GERS Benefits Could Be Slashed 45 Percent or More if Pension System Collapses in 2023-2024.” GERS would be the territory’s Government Employees’ Retirement System, which was established in 1959, currently serves about 8,700 pensioners, and is about to run out of money. Asiah Clendinen is its acting chief operation officer and puts the situation in stark terms: “It would be devastating. It would be like a Category 6 hurricane if nothing happens to give us an infusion of cash.”

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Clendinen’s analogy is, of course, especially potent in a place that’s been hammered by hurricanes before, including Irma and Maria in rapid succession just three years ago—but it’s fitting, given that the estimated cost to bring the pension fund back to long-term solvency is $2 billion. Even prolonging it a few years, the Consortium reports, would cost $400 million to $600 million. There’s no easy fix, and the problem has been building for years. A 2018 report, which placed the blame largely on the territorial Legislature for its “failure … to adequately fund the system,” noted GERS benefits and operations expenses started to exceed its contributions and investment income in 1996, and this “imbalance” has never been rectified.

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“I want the president to know that we need assistance. You can give us a loan, we’ll invest your money, and then we’ll pay it back,” Clendinen says. “We have a defined benefit plan. We don’t have another avenue. This is too important. This is 25 percent of our GDP—a huge number.” And though 8,700 people may seem like a relatively small number in the states, that’s about 8 percent of the territory’s 107,000 residents, a substantial number to be affected by such severe cuts. In March, a protest by affected retirees on St. Croix was broken up by the police.

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The problems with GERS point to a broader issue in the territory: a looming debt crisis much like the one its western neighbor, Puerto Rico, famously endured a few years back. In September, USVI Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. offered a plan to sell $1 billion in debt with a promise to investors that “the bonds will be repaid even if it goes bankrupt.” (Bryan’s other proposals have included a recent and so far unsuccessful effort to legalize marijuana, with sales helping to fund GERS.) Clendinen offers an appeal to the federal government, including a future POTUS, as a key to better financial health for the territory. Let the USVI keep all of the money it generates, like customs taxes and gas taxes, she says. “Allow us to tap into our resources, without restriction. We don’t need a handout. Just give us access to the money we already generate.”

Régine Biscoe Lee, Guam

As a senator in the Guam Legislature, Régine Biscoe Lee has an insider’s view of the power dynamics in the territory’s relationship with the federal government. She takes a broad, overarching perspective, one echoed by residents across all the territories: They want a voice in the decision-making that affects their lives. Biscoe Lee has a long list of areas where Guam “needs a seat at the table,” including self-determination regarding the territory’s political status, the underfunding of its Medicaid system, and the buildup of the U.S. military base on the island, but she points to the issue of climate change as especially instructive.

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On this front, Biscoe Lee says, Guam residents are lacking a president “who actually believes that it’s affecting lives.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s own data, the U.S. territories—all of them islands—are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including coral bleaching and the destruction of essential ecosystems and fisheries (and, along with it, cultural identity), as well as impacts on tourism. When the territories don’t have political power, or a place at the decision-making table, the specific details and urgency get lost—and, along with it, the funding and policy priorities needed to make a difference.

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Alongside this direct, immediate impact, Biscoe Lee says, there’s the issue of climate refugees from other areas of the Pacific moving to Guam: “Our friends and neighbors there, their homelands are literally being submerged.” That includes residents of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau, all independent island nations that have Compacts of Free Association with the USA, which, among other things, establish a close economic relationship and visa-free immigration to the U.S., most often to Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The terms of those compacts—including allocations from the American federal government to the areas where these immigrants move—are set for renegotiation during the next presidential term, and it’s essential, Biscoe Lee says, that residents and leaders of affected U.S. territories be fully included in the decision-making.

Isa Arriola, Northern Mariana Islands

Isa Arriola, who serves on the board of the  community organization Our Common Wealth, on the island of Saipan, and whose current doctoral work at UCLA focuses on militarization and self-determination, calls these the essential issues for the Northern Marianas, ones that connect to both the ongoing relationship to the mainland United States and the very history and identity of local residents.

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In the Northern Marianas, as on Guam, the U.S. military has for decades controlled land owned by local families, particularly those of Indigenous Chamorro or Refaluwasch descent. There are no military bases in the Northern Marianas—although the island of Tinian was essentially operated as one large base at the end of World War II—but the Navy leases large portions of Tinian and has plans to conduct live-fire training there and on the entirety of Pagan, one of the territory’s remote northern islands. After a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in September that the Navy could proceed. “It’s a blockade to properly exercising our local rights and self-determination,” Arriola says.

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Arriola calls this not just “militarism run amok, where it’s far beyond what’s necessary for national defense” but also “clearly an issue of territorial seizure, but all through legal means”—the laws themselves are part of the problem, offering insufficient protections to local residents and their concerns and livelihoods. Even though the military may follow the letter of the law, it’s done in a way that’s intentionally confusing and hard for most residents to track. “People say all the time that they don’t know what these different projects are,” Arriola says. One of her group’s missions, and a change she’d like to see from Washington, is simply to give the public clear information about what’s happening, and how they can make their views known.

Larry Sanitoa, American Samoa

First, some good news that a president attuned to matters of public health might want to note: American Samoa has had zero—not even one! Zero!cases of the coronavirus, after taking strict measures including sealing itself off from outside travelers in late March, with no passenger flights into the territory since then. This did, however, strand numerous residents who had been traveling and still haven’t gotten home. But the big concern that Larry Sanitoa, a member of the American Samoa House of Representatives, wants to discuss is meth (generally called “ice” in the territory), which he says has become a widespread problem. (In 2018, territorial police seized more than $1 million of the drug, in the course of 25 raids—a significant amount for a place with a population of about 55,000.)

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Part of the issue, he says, is a matter of tracking the source of the drug—much of it is likely coming in from elsewhere, and if there was better understanding of the trafficking routes, it would be easier to stop it. Sanitoa points to 2012 as a tipping point, when the local FBI office closed due to budget constraints. “In the old days we used to arrest people in Hawaii, we would arrest people into the states,” he says. “Because the FBI was involved, and that was wonderful because we knew then where the drug was coming in.” The territory’s current governor, Lolo Matalasi Moliga, is not running for reelection (due to term limits), but Sanitoa hopes that the next governor will “work closely with our congresswoman and, hopefully, with the president of the United States to look at directing federal resources to trying to work on this.”

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There’s also the matter of long-term economic development and a lack of a diversified economy—both perennial topics in all territories—and here, Sanitoa has a particular interest in changing cabotage laws and the Jones Act. These are laws that restrict transit and commerce between two U.S. destinations (say, American Samoa and Hawaii) by non-American carriers (say, Samoa Airways, which is based in the independent nation of Samoa); these limitations, in turn, reduce competition (in this case, which is not hypothetical but very real, the only flights between American Samoa and the rest of the USA, during nonpandemic times, are on Hawaiian Airlines).

“Since we’re so far away from everybody, if we’re ever going to get tourism working or perhaps more trade working, we have to have these foreign carriers,” Sanitoa says. “Congresswoman Aumua Amata, she’s trying very hard, but I think it’s got to go up to the next level because obviously, there’s a reason why we can’t get a waiver” to the cabotage laws.

Changing the law, though, is unlikely to happen anytime soon: As the publication WorkBoat recently documented, both Biden and Trump have voiced support for the Jones Act.

That’s in keeping with a long-standing reality that Natalie Caraballo highlighted in Puerto Rico: There’s a long history of both Republican and Democratic administrations disappointing residents of the U.S. territories through a lack of action on essential issues. Incidentally, no sitting president has been to American Samoa since Lyndon Johnson, or to the Northern Marianas at all since they came under U.S. control.

But even if territory residents can’t vote for their own commander in chief, it’s important to remember that they exist, and the issues that affect them aren’t going away anytime soon.

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Correction, Oct. 21, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally mischaracterized the mission of Proyecto 85. 

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