Unprecedented national election looms in Marshall Islands

1:35 pm on 11 November 2019

A contentious lead up to an unprecedented national election in the Marshall Islands this month has revolved largely around a controversial law banning off-shore voting that was recently declared unconstitutional by the country's Supreme Court.

But, while the offshore voter ban has sparked rigorous debate in the local newspaper and on social media, few other issues have been campaign flashpoints in a nation where voters are used to voting for their relatives.

Voters line up to get their ballots during the 2015 election in Majuro

Voters line up to get their ballots during the 2015 election in Majuro Photo: RNZ Pacific / Giff Johnson

The ban on postal absentee ballots for the estimated 30,000 Marshall Islanders living in the US makes the 18 November national election unprecedented in the 40 years of constitutional government: It is the first election with no mechanism available for offshore voters to cast their votes unless they return to the country to do so.

In addition to being unprecedented with about a third of the country's citizens unable to vote, the election is important in other ways. It will elect national leadership that will be responsible to oversee negotiations with the United States for post-2023 funding to replace expiring grant programs, and to guide the nation through a period of increasingly contentious relations between China and the US, which has implications for Marshall Islands diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The wildcard for incumbents in this election is the lack of postal absentee ballots: aside from fewer votes that will be cast because the ban is still in place, will the offshore vote ban itself be an issue that affects domestic voting patterns?

As the election has neared, anger has surfaced among domestic voters about their offshore relatives being prevented from voting.

Some voters and candidates were angered by the Supreme Court ruling in October that declared the Parliament law banning postal absentee balloting unconstitutional but also made the ruling prospective for after the election. The Supreme Court said it put too much burden on the government at a late stage in the election process to roll out some system of voting for voters living in the US by 18 November.

"It seems ironic that the same Court that held the postal ballot elimination law unconstitutional would turn around and order that same unconstitutional law be used when it will surely result in virtually no overseas voting in the upcoming election," said Evelyn Konou, a four-term member of Parliament from 1979 to the mid-1990s who is a candidate for Parliament and one of several plaintiffs in lawsuits that successfully challenged the Parliament ban on offshore voting.

The President's Office in a statement issued last month praised the court ruling and said lawmakers would work to address the offshore voting issue after the new parliament convenes in January. Although the President's Office repeated the government's concern about offshore voters manipulating postal ballots that "jeopardised election security and integrity," the Supreme Court dismissed this issue as an irrelevant justification for banning postal ballots.

Only a handful of seats in the 2015 national election were decided by postal absentee ballots. As more and more Marshallese have migrated to the US, offshore voters will be able to control the outcomes of many electorates in the future - once some method of voting is put in place for them, as required by the recent Supreme Court ruling that declared a ban on offshore voting to be unconstitutional.

In the meantime, some Marshallese residing in the US have already arrived on Majuro specifically to cast their ballots on 18 November. As the election approaches, it is likely more Marshallese will fly in to cast their ballots - but the number returning to vote will be minuscule compared to the tens of thousands of adult islanders now living in America.

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