American Samoa voters reject proposals to gain autonomy from US

Joyetter Feagaimaalii
2022.11.09
Pago Pago, American Samoa
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American Samoa voters reject proposals to gain autonomy from US Matafao Peak dominates the skyline above Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa, Oct. 3, 2009.
Torsten Blackwood/AFP

Voters in American Samoa this week rejected three amendments to the U.S. territory’s constitution that would have given it more autonomy from the federal government.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior wields significant power in American Samoa, including appointing top judges and having veto power over judicial and legislative decisions. The U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday were a once-in-a-decade opportunity to change American Samoa’s constitution, but voters opted for the status quo.

The proposed changes would have given the territory’s governor authority to appoint the chief justice and associate justices and would have removed the interior secretary’s powers to override the High Court of American Samoa and its legislature.

“I told my children not to vote for those changes,” said Leinafo Mua, an elder in the Manu’a Islands group. “There is nothing wrong with the way things are, why change it for the sake of changing it? The time will come for that, but now is not the time.”

Unofficial results released Wednesday by American Samoa’s election office showed the amendments were defeated by ratios of up to two to one.

It is the only U.S. territory where the interior secretary has such “immense powers,” said Tapa’au Dr. Dan Aga, head of American Samoa’s Constitutional Convention Office, adding that the three amendments were aimed at developing the local government.

The weight given to Polynesian traditions and local self-determination versus the U.S. federal government’s authority is an ongoing debate in American Samoa, which has seen its population decline over the past decade.

Home to about 50,000 people – down from 56,000 in 2010 – American Samoa has been a U.S. territory for more than a century. The islands, about 2,200 miles southwest of Hawaii, were administered by the U.S. Navy until the mid-19th century, when control was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Logoitino Fonoti, a resident of Tualauta County, said the results showed a lack of faith in American Samoa Gov. Lemanu Mauga.

“The result sends a strong message against removing these powers from the secretary,” she said. “Maybe in the future we will have a governor we can trust and our people will be confident to remove those powers from the secretary.”

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