Puerto Rico Plebiscites: Past and Present

Over the years, Puerto Rico has held several plebiscites asking voters their choice about the type of relationship they would like with the U.S.  The ballot options on the plebiscites have been different, but they include statehood, independence and often a “Commonwealth” option.

The Past

The most recent plebiscite was in 2012, but there were also votes in 1967, 1993 and 1998.   Each time, conflict ensued because of ambiguity over ballot wording or structure.  For example, “Commonwealth” was a choice on the 1967 and 1993 ballots, but it was defined differently in each.  When “Commonwealth” was kept off the ballot in 1998 and 2012 due to legal and policy concerns, “Commonwealth” proponents complained, boycotted the vote and/or inserted a “none of the above” option.  The local conflict over an essentially federal issue called for clarity by Congress.

In 2014, Congress approved $2.5 million for a new plebiscite on “options that would resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status.”  The funding, however, was conditioned on a finding by the U.S. Justice Department that “the voter education materials, plebiscite ballot, and related materials are not incompatible with the Constitution and laws and policies of the United States.”  The  federal law was bipartisan – enacted by the Republican Congress with President Obama’s signature – and had the approval of key representatives from Puerto Rico, including Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) and Appropriations Committee member Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY).

This need for federal intervention in Puerto Rico plebiscites has been recognized by both Puerto Rican and federal officials for decades. In the words of former Puerto Rico Lieutenant Governor/Secretary of State and Senate President Kenneth McClintock, a plebisicte without federal approval is “just a glorified opinion poll.”

As past plebiscites show, the “Commonwealth” option means different things to different people. Puerto Rico is often called a “Commonwealth,” but this is simply a word used to describe the local government. The term has no legal meaning.  Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, just as Virginia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are states.  Yet each of these entities is commonly referred to as a “Commonwealth.”

There is a “Commonwealth” political party in Puerto Rico that is frequently – incorrectly – described as endorsing the status quo. The party’s platform has actually endorsed a political status called “enhanced” or “developed” commonwealth, in which the people of Puerto Rico remain integrated within the U.S. yet have powers of a sovereign nation. The conflicting set of rights and entitlements  under “Commonwealth” would grant Puerto Rico:  the authority to cherry-pick which federal laws apply to the island, mandated block grant funding and other federal benefits, permanent U.S. citizenship, and recognition of nationhood in the United Nations and other international bodies.  Members of Congress and other federal officials have been clear that such a relationship would be impossible due to Constitutional and other legal, policy and practical reasons.

The federal government has responsibility for this misperception. When President Truman signed the federal law approving the island’s local “Commonwealth” Constitution in 1952, he announced that “full authority and responsibility for local self-government” would be “vested in the people of Puerto Rico.” (emphasis added)

“The people of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico,” he explained “are entering into a new relationship that will serve as an inspiration to all who love freedom and hate tyranny….Those who truly love freedom know that the right relationship between a government and its people is one based on mutual consent and esteem.”

Truman was clear that the only power being granted to Puerto Rico was the territory’s new local authority.  Yet his word choice of “mutual consent” has been interpreted over the years in Puerto Rico as not a simple agreement that Puerto Rico would now run its local affairs, but as providing the same amount of power to the U.S. territory that of the federal government has – an impossible arrangement.

There has also been – and continues to be – confusion over what Free Association would mean for Puerto Rico.  There is a perception in Puerto Rico that people would be able to keep their U.S. citizenship if Puerto Rico were to become an freely associated nation with the U.S. – and many people believe that U.S. citizenship can be passed down through generations in a sovereign Puerto Rico. But providing U.S. citizenship to millions of residents of a foreign nation would be an unprecedented situation.  There are no guarantees that Puerto Ricans could keep or inherit U.S. citizenship in a new sovereign nation.  The situation is ambiguous at best, and Members of Congress as well as other senior federal officials have said so over the years.

The Present

In early 2017, one of the first acts of Governor Ricardo Rossello was signing into law the ballot definitions for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico to be held on June 11, 2017.  The proposed ballot was sent to the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department  evaluated Puerto Rico’s materials and, in a letter dated April 13th, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana J. Boente explained that several changes must be made to gain Justice approval, including adding an option to the ballot for the island’s current territorial status.  Yet Boente rejected a call from eight Republican U.S. Senators to add a “Commonwealth” option to the proposed ballot.  His decision was consistent with the wishes of Republican leaders within Puerto Rico and federal determinations going back decades.  Boente also noted that the Free Association option on the ballot needed to make clear that “a vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence.”

Governor Rossello responded to Boente in a letter the very next day, and by the end of the following week the Puerto Rico legislature had passed a bill implementing the Department’s suggested changes and creating a new ballot.

There has been no Justice response to the revised materials, but several sources have explained that the Department may not have enough time to complete its internal procedures of approving the final ballot by the June 11th plebiscite date.

It remains to be seen what the outcome of this process will be.  The Governor could hold the vote on June 11th using ballot definitions that reflect the Department’s comments made in the April 13th letter.  He could also wait to receive final sign off and funding approval.

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