Can American Samoans Vote?
Can they affect the presidential race?
After losing the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton pledged to continue her fight for the White House. She said, "We now turn our attention to the millions of Americans who will make their voices heard in Florida and the 22 other states as well as American Samoa who will vote on February 5." Wait a second, what kind of voting rights do they have in Samoa?
Very few. The 57,000 residents of American Samoa, a tiny group of islands near Australia, cannot vote in national elections, but they do hold presidential primaries and send nine delegates to the nominating conventions for each party. Most years, this handful has little effect on the outcomes at the conventions. (For comparison, Florida sends 114 delegates.) But in a tight race like that between Democrats Obama and Clinton, every delegate might come into play, so candidates reach out to smaller and smaller constituencies for votes.
Beyond the presidential primaries, territories like American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have limited voting powers. Their inability to participate on the federal level results from the status of their residents: American Samoans are considered U.S. nationals, not citizens. They can elect one nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, who is permitted to cast votes on amendments to a bill but not its final passage. (The 580,000 U.S. citizens living in Washington, D.C., get the same deal in Congress. But they can vote for president, sending three members to the electoral college.)
American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900, but it didn't get its congressional delegate or the right to hold presidential primaries until 1981. With one exception in 1996, Democratic residents of the islands have always gone to the polls on Super Tuesday. (Republicans will vote on Feb. 23.) This year, for the first time, American Samoa will keep the polls open only from 9 to 11 a.m., so the announcement of the results will coincide with those in the United States many time zones away.
No presidential candidate has ever visited American Samoa, but both Sens. Clinton and Obama have local campaign offices. The Clinton campaign announced Jan. 11 that it had gained the endorsement of American Samoa Gov. Togiola T.A. Tulafono and other Samoan delegates.
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Explainer thanks Filivaa Mageo from the American Samoan Election Office.
Jon Rubin is a Slate intern.
Photograph of Ofu, American Samoa by Eric Guinther.