District Elections: An Idea Whose Time May Have Come

In 2009, one Guam senator sponsored legislation to prompt a referendum to restore 6 additional seats to the Guam Legislature—for a total of 21 seats. The stated purpose of the measure was to “increase in public service, connectivity to the community and people’s accessibility to lawmakers.”

With all due respect, adding 6 more seats to the Legislature will not accomplish these goals; all it will do is put six more senators (and their staff members) on the public payroll and make it easier for incumbents to be reelected. If the goal is to improve constituent service and make the Legislature more responsive to community needs, then the way to accomplish it is not to expand the Legislature but rather to begin electing senators by districts.

Guam appears to be the only jurisdiction under the American flag in which all members of the legislature are elected “at large.” All of the states—and even all the smaller territories such as the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the CNMI—elect their legislators by districts.

Supporters of the current at-large system claim that the system best cultivates candidates who will have the entire island’s interests in mind. But opponents of the system counter that it results in electing senators who are accountable to everyone, but to no one in particular. They also point out that the system tends to result in a legislature comprised of senators who reside in certain centralized (and generally well-heeled) geographical areas of the island, without assuring that other areas--including the Northern and Southern areas—have adequate representation.

Opponents of the at-large system also maintain that the current “vote for 15” procedure leads to strange tactical voting decisions and makes it difficult to vote “against” a particular candidate. The problem with casting 15 votes is that the voter’s fifteenth preference might end up defeating his or her first, second or third preference. On the other hand, if one casts only a few votes or a single “bullet” vote, the voter is effectively remaining silent as to everyone else who is running. It is truly a strange system, virtually unique in American politics.

​In a district election, voters could vote “against” a candidate simply by voting for the candidate’s opponent. In a two-party district race, it is a zero sum game—for one candidate to win, the other must lose. Under the at-large system, however, things are not so simple. Candidates seemingly get elected or reelected based largely on pedigree and name recognition. Arguably, by the time most voters reach their fifth or sixth preference, the process becomes rather arbitrary.

Moreover, mounting a small district election campaign would be much less costly than running an island-wide campaign, which could potentially result in greater opportunities for candidates who do not happen to be independently wealthy or well connected island-wide.

There is yet another reason why we should consider scrapping the current at-large system—it might well be unlawful. Section 1423(b) of the Organic Act defers to the Legislature as to whether senators should be elected at large, by districts, or both. However, this Congressional grant of discretion is subject to the proviso that the manner of electing senators “shall not deny to any person on Guam the equal protection of the laws.”

Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the federal Voting Rights Act makes it illegal for state and local governments to “dilute” the votes of racial minority groups, that is, to have an election system that makes minority voters’ votes less effective than those of other voters. According to DOJ, such vote dilution can be accomplished either by drawing district lines that divide minority communities or by the use of an at-large voting system.

​So far, no one has formally challenged the current Guam at-large voting system, but such a challenge remains a possibility. For example, a voter or candidate of predominantly Filipino descent could point out that only a handful of such persons have ever been elected to the Guam Legislature even though Filipinos comprise more than one quarter of Guam’s population and are the leading ethnic group in the large Northern villages of Dededo and Yigo. A good case could be made that if senators were elected by districts—and the districts were fairly drawn—then the Legislature would more accurately reflect Guam’s ethnic diversity.

In the past, federal courts have ordered states and localities to adopt districting plans to replace at-large voting, or to redraw their election district lines in a way that gives minority voters the same opportunity as other voters to elect representatives of their choice. That could happen on Guam if a complaint were to be pursued.

​Although the case for district elections seems strong, don’t expect such sweeping, voluntary electoral reform anytime soon. The current system has served incumbent senators well; and they are unlikely to take any action that might jeopardize their chances of reelection.

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