2 Apr 2016

Guam to seek vote on its political status this year

6:26 pm on 2 April 2016

Voters in Guam may finally get the chance to vote on the territory's political status, with the governor announcing an ambitious plan to add a plebiscite to November's election ballot.

In his 'State of the Island' address this week, Eddie Calvo said he intended to have the plebiscite added after a territory-wide education campaign and a drive to overcome a controversial legal hurdle, which requires 70 percent of eligible native voters to be registered on the decolonisation registry.

The Tumon district in Guam's capital, Hagåtña.

The Tumon district in Guam's capital, Hagåtña. Photo: AFP

The north Pacific island has been a 'non-incorporated' territory of the United States since the late 19th century, after it was wrested from Spanish control at the end of the Spanish-American War.

The territory is strategically important to the US military, especially as it pivots towards Asia, with about one third of its land taken up by military facilities, including a large Air Force and Navy base only 2000 km from Japan. The Pentagon intends to significantly bolster its presence on the island, with plans to move thousands of troops there and establish a Marine Corp presence as part of its buildup.

But Guam's confused political status means the island's 160,000 residents - despite being US citizens - are unable to vote for President, the rights of the US Constitution don't apply, and their only delegate to Congress in Washington has no voting rights.

"It's time we confronted the fact that, for nearly 400 years, the state of the island has been colonial," Mr Calvo, a second-term Republican, said in his 6000-word speech in Hagåtña, the capital. "It is the unchanged and unrepentant shadow cast upon our unshackled destiny."

But in the push to have the plebiscite added to November's ballot, Mr Calvo will need to start a petition to secure the number of signatures needed to force a referendum, as well as conducting a territory-wide voter education campaign.

Guam's governor, Eddie Calvo.

Guam's governor, Eddie Calvo. Photo: Office of the Governor of Guam

"We will aggressively seek the required number of signatures, making this a grassroots decolonisation effort," Mr Calvo said.

"If, by mid-July, we determine that the education campaign is succeeding, I will file the petitions, and we will vote - finally - on our political status."

Troy Torres, a policy advisor for Mr Calvo, told the Pacific Daily News that the vote would attempt to bypass a legal hurdle that has been criticised as impossible to overcome. In 2004, Guam lawmakers passed a law that said any plebiscite would require at least 70 percent of eligible native inhabitant voters to have registered for the Decolonisation Registry.

In his address, Mr Calvo said that it would be impossible to determine that number: "How do you determine 70 percent of the eligible voters if 100 percent of them aren't already registered?," he asked.

"There is no mathematical way of determining how many native inhabitants must register to vote to meet the 70 percent requirement."

Mr Torres said the workaround would be to ask the people if the Governor could submit the results of the plebiscite to Congress, the President and the United Nations, which would essentially bulldoze the requirement, giving the Governor the authority to appeal for a reconsideration on the peoples' behalf.

Guam is strategically important to the United States, housing both an Air Force and Navy base. Here, a US F-16 flies along the island's coastline.

Guam is strategically important to the United States, housing both an Air Force and Navy base. Here, a US F-16 flies along the island's coastline. Photo: US Department of Defense

If the plebiscite does take place, voters on Guam would be asked to select which political status they would prefer; independence, statehood, or free association.

Independence would see Guam become an independent nation, while statehood would see the island become the 51st state of the United States and give it full voting rights. But that could meet resistance as its population would make it by far the smallest state, located thousands of kilometres away from the continental US, and there could be opposition to it gaining two senators in Washington from much larger states.

As a freely-associated nation, Guam would be self-governing, but delegate some autonomy to the United States for services such as defence; similar to the current setups in nearby Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.

"Self determination isn't about loving or hating the United States. It's about our right to be part of something, or to be on our own," Mr Calvo said.

However, any plebiscite vote would be non-binding as any change in political status would require an act of Congress in Washington, something Guam insists it is ready to fight for.