The right of all Americans to vote for the U.S. president – whose actions impact those living in the territories as much as it does the lives of citizens in the states – was discussed early Wednesday morning.

It was the first time that voting rights for Americans living in the U.S. territories was discussed by the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections. The subcommittee has tackled common voting rights’ issues, like voter identification and voting by mail.

Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Del. Gregorio Sablan, Del. Stacey E. Plaskett of the Virgin Islands and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico took part in the discussion.

San Nicolas said he’s hoping the collective testimonies make a strong case for the territories to have a clear path forward. He noted that while Puerto Rico should clearly have its territorial status reconciled as either a full state or an independent country, Guam and the other smaller territories “certainly need more representation to include delegates to the Senate and an electoral college vote similar to that extended to Washington D.C.”

Equal protection, representation

During the hearing, San Nicolas said the lack of voting rights means “the framework of our constitution, and the case law of our courts, have not caught up to what we today would expect to be an America standard – that every American living in America should be equally protected and represented as Americans.”

“The challenge before us today is how to address this,” he stated. “History has shown that it was never the intent of this republic to perpetually maintain territories. Every American territory before 1898 had a very distinct path into the union, and what was consistent in all paths was a deliberate attempt to invest in their eventual inclusion.”

Sablan noted that the CNMI was able to hold an election after the second worst typhoon in U.S. history.

“If the people of the Marianas can hold an election even after the second worst typhoon in United States history, surely America can maintain this cornerstone of our democracy even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” Sablan said.

One other common thread among the territories is the high military enrollment numbers. González-Colón noted that these men and women who serve the flag have no voice in Congress and have no ability to vote for the president.

“I represent 3.2 million citizens with the same right as American citizens in the states, but we and the residents of other territories live in jurisdictions that constitutionally cannot have votes in the government that not only makes our national laws but can and sometimes does intervene in local laws,” she said. “Congress has this power because of the constitution territorial clause, which makes Congress our super-territorial Legislature. Congress can delegate the exercise of self-government to a territory but it still ultimately possesses the power to govern us.”

-Jenniffer González Colón

‘Race and racism’

Plaskett also noted another facet she sees in the denial of voting rights.

“One cannot discuss voting rights and disenfranchisement in the territories without talking about race and racism,” Plaskett said.

“The unincorporated territories of the Virgin Islands of the United states, a possession, is the most structural example of systemic racism. That system permeates the legal status, as well as the economic, political and educational structure that keeps the disparity between us and the mainland. It manifests itself as a position of exclusion of the people living in the Virgin Islands from equitable treatment.”

Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, a nonpartisan public interest law organization that works to advance equality and voting rights in U.S. territories, called the discussion historic, in that it elevates discussion within Congress as well as civil rights organizations.

ast week, a congressman from the Sunshine State introduced a proposal that will make it easier for survivors of domestic violence to replace missing documents.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., brought out the “Documents for Continued Safety Act” which has the support of U.S. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, R-PR.

“The bipartisan legislation would empower survivors of domestic violence by making it easier for them to replace vital documents lost or missing after fleeing their abuser,” Crist’s office noted. “Under the proposal, the Social Security Administration would not charge administrative fees required to replace birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and Social Security cards – identification documents which are necessary for survivors to establish safe and independent lives after experiencing abuse. In 2018, Pinellas County experienced over 6,000 reported cases of domestic violence.”

Crist weighed in on why he brought out the proposal last week.

“Escaping domestic violence is one of the most difficult things a person can do,” said Crist. “This legislation supports survivors who make the brave choice to restart their lives safely and independently, ensuring one step in that process is a little less burdensome.”

“Countering domestic violence has always been one of my legislative priorities. In Puerto Rico, around 20,000 domestic violence cases are reported annually, which provides a glimpse of vulnerabilities experienced by many of my constituents,” said González-Colón. “This bill is crucial to end the lack of access to survivor’s documentation and providing the necessary resources to start a new life free from abuse. As a co-vice chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, I will always support equality and safety for women. This bill is step in the right direction and I will continue to work with my colleagues to enact it into law.”

“Escaping domestic violence is often rushed and desperate. Domestic violence shelters report that survivors frequently do not have their vital documents or access to financial resources – because either the abuser withholds them, or they are forgotten in the process of fleeing,” Crist’s office noted. “Lack of access to these documents can make it nearly impossible for survivors to find jobs, rent a home, or open a bank account, while the process of replacing birth certificates, drivers licenses, and Social Security cards can be cumbersome and costly. The cost of replacing vital documents can delay a survivor’s ability to start fresh, and drain shelters of their limited resources.

“Under the ‘Documents for Continued Safety Act,’ the Social Security Administration (SSA) would waive the fees associated with replacing Social Security Cards for domestic violence survivors and cover state fees for driver’s licenses and birth certificates. Thus providing survivors with life-saving assistance as they take steps to build a safe and independent life,” Crist’s office added.

The bill was sent to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee last week. So far, there is no companion measure over in the U.S. Senate.

Florida’s two GOP senators joined Puerto Rico’s top official in Congress on Tuesday to ask President Trump for federal support following a series of earthquakes on the island.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott signed a letter with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R) asking Trump to order agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide immediate assistance to Puerto Rico.

“The localities that are grappling with the effects of the earth tremors are smaller municipalities that do not have the necessary resources to handle the situation alone, and the Puerto Rico local agencies are taxed to their limits by their fiscal condition and the continuing larger recovery effort,” they wrote.

Puerto Rico was hit Tuesday morning by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake after suffering a series of smaller earthquakes that caused damage and power outages over the weekend.

Tuesday’s earthquake was followed by a series of aftershocks, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquakes come as the island struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and economy after the devastation from Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

The request for federal assistance could touch a nerve with Trump, whose administration has been slow to release the funds appropriated for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.

More than four months have passed since the Department of Housing and Urban Development was supposed to publish a notice on how it plans to distribute more than $8 billion in disaster relief funds for the island.

President Trump has called the island “one of the most corrupt places on Earth.”

For the three Republican lawmakers who signed Tuesday’s letter, Puerto Rico disaster recovery is a priority, with the two senators looking to deliver their state for Trump in November. Florida has the largest Puerto Rican diaspora in the country, at more than 1.2 million residents.

González is up for reelection this year amid political turbulence that has created uncertainty for incumbents.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed an emergency declaration Tuesday. She said in a statement that she has spoken to several members of Congress and that federal agencies are ready to assist the U.S. territory.

The island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board — a congressionally mandated office that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances — announced Tuesday it had authorized the disbursement of $260 million for emergency funds related to the earthquakes.

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