By: Leo Jobsis Rossignol
Thanks to recent media developments, more people are becoming aware of the bizarre fact that, in U.S. territories, citizens cannot vote for the president. However, the vote on the federal level is not the end of the story. There are many further oddities to the voting system in the territories, and we’ll take a moment to explore one of them in this post.
The United States Virgin Islands is one of those territories, and the voting system in place has undergone many changes over time. Originally, those living in the islands had no right to vote or to self-government. Before 1954, the territory was governed by two “municipal” or “colonial” councils (see §5 annotations – prior legislative bodies), one for St. Thomas and St. John, and another for St. Croix (the three main islands), with some positions held by local community leaders. Once a year, or more often if called by the federally-appointed governor, both councils would meet and pass legislation. In the U.S. Virgin Islands Revised Organic Act, passed into law that year, all citizens above the age of twenty-one were granted the right to vote in local elections for both the newly-unicameral legislature and the governor. The law also contained a provision allowing the voting age to be dropped to 18 by popular referendum, which it soon was.
However, the Virgin Islands still had no constitution governing its affairs. Since the Department of the Interior had invited the territory to draft its own, several constitutional conventions were called, but none were able to write one that met the approval of the Virgin Islanders themselves (In order to adopt a constitution, the constitutional convention must be called into being by referendum, its members popularly elected, hold a referendum on its proposed draft, and send it to the federal government for approval). That was the state of affairs until the fifth Constitutional Convention, which was called in 2007. Although its members did manage to agree on a document, it, too, was doomed to fail.
Among its provisions were new qualifications to be held by voters in certain elections, which also determined eligibility to serve on certain political councils. In order to have full political rights in the territory, the voter/office holder would have to be able to show that his or her family had lived in one of the islands at the time of their purchase by the United States in 1917.
This raised many difficulties for the Congress and federal departments tasked with approving the constitution. Because it outwardly afforded different political rights based on one’s ancestry, the constitution proposed could not stand up to challenge under the Equal Protection Clause. However, those who had passed the constitution in the first place saw it differently: these qualifications were the minimum to make sure that the Virgin Islands would be governed in a way amenable to its current and historic inhabitants, rather than those who had simply come to buy land on the island and treated it as a vacation home. Without these qualification requirements, anyone from the mainland could move to the island and demand it be governed for their pleasure, rather than in such a way that would serve those who lived in and identified with the island more deeply.
Ultimately, the federal government sent the constitution back to be revised, but the miracle of its drafting could not be recreated. The fifth Constitutional Convention came to a close amid bitter arguments over alternative measures to protect local communities. However, in last year’s elections, a referendum to hold a sixth Constitutional Convention was placed on the ballot, and it passed by a greater than 40% margin. Perhaps this time, it will succeed.