About 1,000 miles south of America's mainland, a group of 64 Puerto Ricans will gather this morning to determine who will represent them at the Democratic National Convention in August.
The selection of the island's delegation, held in a meeting room of a San Juan technical college, is the meatiest role the U.S. territory gets to play in the presidential election.
Although territories like Puerto Rico can hold primaries and caucuses to select delegates for the parties' conventions, the 4 million U.S. citizens living there cannot vote in the general election.
"Frankly, people speak very little of the presidential election," said Pedro Rojas, an editor at El Nuevo Dia, a large newspaper in San Juan. "Most people don't even know if there is a primary or caucus going on. If you go on the street and ask them, they say, 'I don't know and I don't really care.' Right now, a baseball game is a lot more important."
Puerto Rico Delegation Exceeds Many States'
The quirky situation stems from the U.S. Constitution, which says that a president must be selected by an electoral college determined by the states--not territories.
For most people, the participation of America's four territories--Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam--in the race for the highest office in the land amounts to an obscure trivia question amid the hubbub of Campaign 2000.
Representatives of the territories, who serve as nonvoting members of the U.S. House, cling to their small foothold in national politics. But some wish they had a broader say in selecting the nation's leader.
The residents of the four territories do not pay U.S. taxes. But, except for Samoa, they are all U.S. citizens. And all residents of the territory are subject to U.S. law, including eligibility for the military draft.
One option under consideration in Puerto Rico and Guam is making a bid to become a U.S. state.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico will send 58 delegates, including alternates, to the Democratic National Convention--a larger delegation than half the states.
That means that on an island generally infected with the fever of politics--voting turnout usually hovers around 84%--the presidential election generates little buzz. Few campaign ads play on the radio or TV, and a visit by an actual candidate is rare.
Even today's general assembly to select delegates is expected to be a mild-mannered event.
"There's no such thing as a campaign here," acknowledged Eudaldo Baez-Galib, a Puerto Rican senator and Democratic party chairman, who sent out a press release about today's meeting to the local media, hoping to generate attention. "So you can imagine the interest people have."
Puerto Rico, the first U.S. territory, acquired in 1898, has participated in the Republican and Democratic conventions since as early as 1940. More recently, American Samoa leaders approached the national parties in the mid-1980s, asking to be included.
But in the rush for big prizes like Iowa, New Hampshire, California and New York, most campaigns pay little attention to the four territories, which send a total of 26 delegates to the Republican convention and 76 to the Democratic convention.
Still, former Democratic candidate Bill Bradley visited Puerto Rico twice during the campaign (well, once while he was on vacation). And Bush seems quite proud of his support in the territories. After Republican contests in three of the territories earlier this year, his campaign released a statement cheerfully proclaiming: "Governor Bush Sweeps Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa."
Officials of both parties said that, even though people living in the U.S. territories cannot cast a vote for president, they should be able to have a voice in the general election.
"There's quite a few folks out there in these territories that do deserve to be represented in our party, and we care about them," said Michael Jones, director of Republican Abroad, an arm of the Republican National Committee. "Those are Americans, and that's American soil."
Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa's delegate in Congress--who was once introduced by another member as "the representative from Somalia"--has mixed feelings about the distant Pacific island's exclusion from the election. Unlike people living in the other U.S. territories, Samoans are U.S. nationals, not citizens.
"It's bad enough for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico not being able to vote for president," Faleomavaega said. "How can you expect the U.S. nationals to be given the same privilege?"
But Faleomavaega said he was proud that he helped Gore win five delegates at Samoa's Democratic caucus, held March 7 in a restaurant in Pago Pago. (Bradley won one delegate.) About 50 Samoans attended the caucus.
Robert Underwood, Guam's delegate in Congress, bemoans the fact that Guamanians can't vote for president.
"You're not a participant in the process, but whoever is president is just as much your president as anyone else's," he said.