State Legislatures group asks Congress to give V.I. residents the right to vote for the president


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ST. THOMAS - The National Conference of State Legislatures has adopted a resolution asking Congress to consider amending the constitution to give Virgin Islanders the right to vote for the president.

The V.I. Legislature is a member of the NCSL, and a contingent of V.I. senators attended last week's conference in Minneapolis.

Senators Craig Barshinger, Clifford Graham, Alicia Hansen, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young traveled to Minneapolis for the week-long conference.

The resolution was drafted by Malone, who sits on the executive committee of the NCSL. Because the resolution was not reported out unanimously by the executive committee, it went to the floor of the NCSL's business meeting for debate.

Malone left the conference early to attend Ambassador Terence Todman's funeral, so he asked Roach to speak on behalf of the territory to defend the resolution.

Roach said he pointed out to the NCSL members that Virgin Islanders take on all other responsibilities of citizenship, including joining the armed forces and defending the country, yet they cannot vote for the president of the United States.

The territory's small size makes it unlikely to ever join the union as a state, yet its people deserve the full rights of citizenship, he said.

For almost 100 years, this disparity has existed, ever since the United States purchased the territory from Denmark in 1917, Roach said. Citizenship was not granted to the territory's residents until 1927.

"This represents perhaps the only instance in the 20th century where a territory was purchased - with people on it - people who were denied any meaningful input in the direction of their future," Roach said on the floor.

Malone told The Daily News on Wednesday that such a thing could happen again, and there would be no protections in place for Virgin Islanders.

"They don't have to consult with us," Malone said. "It's not secure."

All the resolutions passed by the NCSL last week will be on the non-partisan lobbying group's agenda for their fall forum in Washington, D.C. Members of the NCSL will flood the nation's capital to push for the various measures, including the one for the territory's voting rights.

The goal would be to get a member of Congress to sponsor legislation to amend the constitution to allow Virgin Islanders to vote for the president, Malone said.

The same resolution was passed in December by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, according to Malone.

Roach said the Virgin Islands are in a unique position and should be considered separately when it comes to citizenship matters. Congress conferred citizenship rights on the territory in 1927, whereas residents of American Samoa did not get that privilege and are considered non-citizen nationals.

"I think it's important for us, even though we are recognized as territory, to look at the differences between us and the rest of the territories," Roach said. "Sometimes we have to stand alone, because our situation is not identical to the other territories."

Malone said his resolution was supported by the We the People Project, an organization that works to achieve equal rights for residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

We the People Project currently is working to put together a lawsuit that would address the same issue of Virgin Islanders' presidential voting rights, but through the courts rather than through Congress.

St. Thomas resident Krim Ballentine also is working on a new lawsuit he has filed in federal court about the constitutional rights of Virgin Islanders.

Malone said while these various legal challenges and appeals to Congress are going on, it would make sense for the territory's Status Commission to be reinstated. He said it still exists under the statute but would need funding to begin operating again.

"We cannot ignore our political status anymore," Malone said. "We need to be engaged in our political future constantly."

Malone said the NCSL is considered one of the top lobbying groups in Washington, with approximately 47,000 members including state and territorial senators and staff.

- Contact Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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