A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that a planned plebiscite by Guam cannot go forward so long as it limits voting to “native inhabitants” of Guam. The panel ruled that such an “impermissible racial classification” violates the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Today’s decision affirms a March, 2017 decision by Federal District Judge Tydingco-Gatewood.
Guam argued that the Fifteenth Amendment’s absolute prohibition on race-based voting restrictions did not apply to the plebiscite since it was merely an “advisory” vote that only directed the Government of Guam to transmit preferences regarding Guam’s future relationship to Congress, the President and the United Nations. The panel ruled, however, that directing the government to take certain positions on a matter of public importance was sufficient to impose the requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment.
The panel emphasized that voting is “foundational” to democratic self-rule because “the opportunity to participate in the formation of government policies defines and enforces all other policies.” The Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition against disenfranchising voters on the basis of race is absolute and cannot be set aside for any reason, no matter how compelling it might seem.