Former Hawaii residents have sued the state and federal government over laws they say discriminate against their right to participate in federal elections.

Veterans, lawyers and a radio talk-show host living in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands filed a lawsuit Thursday because they can’t get access to absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election, where voters will decide on the next U.S. president and Hawaii voters will elect candidates to two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Disparate treatment with respect to voting is an especially grievous constitutional violation because voting is a fundamental right,” the lawsuit says.

Rain clouds sit on the horizon offshore Guam’s Tumon Bay, one of Guam’s major tourist centers on the island.
Former Hawaii residents living in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have sued the state and federal government over access to absentee ballots for federal elections. Tumon Bay, Guam, is pictured above. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are challenging the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act as well as a similar Hawaii law called the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act.

They argue that provisions in the UOCAVA and UMOVA, as the laws are known, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. If not for their current place of residence, the plaintiffs would otherwise be eligible to vote under the overseas voting laws.

The lawsuit asks that the former Hawaii residents be allowed to participate in the presidential election by absentee ballot.  

The lawsuit names Hawaii Elections Chief Scott Nago, the U.S. government, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the Federal Voting Assistance Program and its director, David Bierne, as defendants.

A spokeswoman for the state Office of Elections said the office does not comment on pending litigation. 

The plaintiffs include Randall Reeves, Vicente Borja and Edmund Schroeder, all veterans of the U.S. military who have settled on Guam but lived in Hawaii at one time or another.

They are joined by Laura and Ravi Nagi, lawyers in the U.S. Virgin Islands who moved to the territory after working at the Hawaii Legal Aid Society in the early 2000s. 

Patricia Rodriguez, a talk-show host on Guam, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“She has seen first-hand the impact that the denial of voting rights has had on Guam, whether it is negotiating with federal officials during the military buildup, addressing disparities in federal healthcare programs, seeking increased reimbursement for costs associated with regional migration under the Compacts of Free Association, or engaging the federal government to support decolonization and Chamoru self-determination,” the lawsuit says.

All the plaintiffs argue in the case that they could have voted if they resided elsewhere, such as in the Northern Mariana Islands. In the 1980s, Reeves was able to vote by absentee ballot in Rhode Island elections while stationed in Germany, according to the lawsuit.

“Indeed, even if they resided in Antarctica – or left Earth entirely to work at the International Space Station – they would still be permitted to vote for President and voting members of Congress in federal elections,” the lawsuit says, referencing a provision that allows astronauts to vote from outer space.

Equally American, an organization that advocates for rights of residents in U.S. territories, is also one of the plaintiffs bringing the lawsuit. The organization has previously sued the federal government over citizenship and other voting rights issues.

Millions of residents in U.S. territories are also barred from participating in federal elections, in part because the Electoral College says they can’t.

The defendants have not yet filed a response to the complaint. 

The case is not likely to be resolved before the Nov. 3 election. A scheduling conference is set for Dec. 7 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Rom Trader.

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