Thursday, January 18, 2018
Seventh Circuit Rules Against Territorial Plaintiffs in Absentee-Voting-Rights Case
The Seventh Circuit ruled that former Illinoisans who now live in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands lacked standing to challenge the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and lost on the merits in their claims against Illinois after the state rejected their requests for absentee-voter ballots.
The ruling means that former Illinoisans who reside in these territories won't receive an absentee-voter ballot from the state, unless Illinois changes its law.
The plaintiffs, former residents of Illinois but now residents of the territories, sued when Illinois denied them absentee-voter ballots for federal elections in Illinois. They claimed that the UOCAVA and Illinois law defined their territories as part of the United States and thus prohibited them from getting absentee ballots as overseas voters. They claimed that this violated equal protection and their right to travel.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs didn't even have standing to challenge the UOCAVA. That's because while the UOCAVA defines "the United States" to include these territories, it doesn't prohibit Illinois from providing absentee ballots to the plaintiffs. Illinois law does that. As a result, the court said that the plaintiffs couldn't challenge the federal law, although they could still challenge state law.
As to state law, the court said that Illinois's classification didn't violate equal protection and its denial of absentee ballots didn't violate the right to travel. The court said that the plaintiffs have no fundamental right to vote in federal elections--"absent a constitutional amendment, only residents of the 50 States have the right to vote in federal elections"--and no claim to heightened scrutiny. The court held that Illinois's distinction between Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands (on the one hand) and the Northern Marianas and American Samoa (on the other, where former Illinoisans can get an absentee ballot) passed rational basis review, because at the time that Illinois enacted the distinction, "these two territories were . . . more similar to foreign nations than were the incorporated territories where the plaintiffs reside." (The court said it was OK to look at the state's justification at the time of the distinction, in 1979, instead of now, because "even if . . . the Northern Marianas and American Samoa became more integrated into the United States, it would not help the plaintiffs [who are] injured specifically because Illinois defines their resident territories as within the United States.")
The court summarily rejected the plaintiffs' right-to-travel argument as "borderline frivolous."