A Law to Govern Puerto Rico’s Upcoming Status Vote

A new law, the “Act to Define Puerto Rico’s Ultimate Political Status,” has been enacted in Puerto Rico. The law includes the details of the upcoming plebiscite, from the design of the ballot to the accessibility of polling places.

It also includes an extensive section explaining the consequences of Puerto Rico remaining a territory. A significant amount of the text of the Act is devoted to explaining the reasons that change is needed.

The primary purpose of the law is “to establish the rules for the holding of a plebiscite on November 3, 2020 to resolve the century-old problem of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States of America”.

Why is it necessary to resolve Puerto Rico’s status?

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. The status of “unincorporated territory” can continue indefinitely, but it is not a permanent status. If Puerto Rico becomes a State, it will permanently be a State. It will not revert to territory status. Equally, if the people of Puerto Rico chose independence, they would not be able to change their minds and go back to being a territory — or to become a State.

As an unincorporated territory, however, Puerto Rico can at any time become either a State of the Union, or an independent nation. Therefore, being a territory is not a permanent status. The status issue cannot be resolved by continuation as a territory.

Why is Puerto Rico’s status a “problem”?

The Act specifically states that Puerto Rico’s territorial status is “a problem.” This is not only because territorial status is by definition a temporary rather than a permanent status.

“The colonial or territory status has always limited the socioeconomic development of peoples, thereby accentuating permanent crisis and poverty. Puerto Rico has not been the exception,” the Act declares. “Puerto Rico’s prolonged colonial condition has resulted in the accumulation of significant socioeconomic problems. Under the U.S. flag and citizenship, finding real solutions and achieving a positive transformation would only be possible upon the recognition of equal rights and obligations for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.”

The Act points out that many of the current States had been in economic distress when they were territories. Both Hawaii and Alaska, for example, both had large percentages of their populations living in poverty. Both now are among the most prosperous States.

“Their territory status kept them at a serious disadvantage,” the Act says, “which they were able to overcome by becoming states of the Union. At present, they all enjoy quality of life and progress, thus strengthening our Nation.”

The new law also highlights the fact that Puerto Rico, as a territory, has been in an ongoing state of crisis for which it must continually seek temporary solutions.

“Puerto Rico needs and has made electoral demands for these same opportunities, rights, and duties, for the past eight years,” the law explains. “The permanent crisis shall persist as long as Puerto Rico continues in this vicious territorial cycle and no act of Congress shall be enough to remedy the problems that this Island has accumulated over the past 122 years.”

Does Puerto Rico deserve statehood?

It may seem strange to question whether Puerto Rico is entitled to statehood. Having been a territory of the United States for more than a century, Puerto Rico is now more populous, more integrated into the nation’s economy and culture, and more developed than any of the territories which were admitted in the past.

But the Act recognizes that there are those who suggest that Puerto Rico should “get its house in order” or that it is not time yet to consider statehood.

“The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have made significant contributions to the economic, commercial, industrial, military, scientific, technological, and cultural development of the Nation,” the Act points out. “Since Puerto Rico became a territory in 1898, more than 235,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the United States Armed Forces. Thousands of those service members have received awards and decorations of all sorts, including for courageous military service in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

“Puerto Rico is prepared to be admitted as a state of the Union with rights and obligations equal to those of the other states,” the Act continues. “To place obstacles on the path to this inevitable destiny will needlessly prolong a colonial crisis that affects lives and impairs rights in Puerto Rico as well as inconvenience the Federal Government as it hopelessly tries to fix an unfixable territory status.”

History of the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico

The document continues with a history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, culminating in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites.

The 2012 ballot asked two questions, and received clear answers:

  • First Question:
    • Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?
      • NO: 53.97%
      • YES: 46.03%
  • Second Question:
    • Please mark which of the following non-territorial options you would prefer.
      • STATEHOOD                                                   61.16%
      • FREE ASSOCIATED SOVEREIGN STATE        33.34%
      • INDEPENDENCE                                             5.49%

The 2017 plebiscite offered three status options, and again the results were clear:

  • STATEHOOD                                                   97.13%
  • FREE ASSOCIATED SOVEREIGN STATE        1.52%
  • INDEPENDENCE                                             1.35%

The 2020 referendum

The Act specifies when and where the vote will take place, who will be eligible to vote, and how the vote will be announced.

“The following ballot question shall be submitted to voters: ‘“Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State? Voters may only vote for one (1) of the two (2) options printed on the ballot: ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

It has been determined that the order of the alternatives should be

  • No
  • Yes

The instructions for voters will be as follows:

“INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE VOTER

The voter can only choose and mark one (1) option from among those printed on this ballot. You must make a valid mark inside the blank box that appears below the geometric shape which represents the option of your preference. Ballots that fail to state the clear or specific intent of the voter on one of the options printed on the ballot: with more than one (1) option marked, not voted, blank, or with some other symbol or writing outside of any of the blank boxes, shall not be accounted for in the official results certified by the State Elections Commission, according to the case law of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.”

If “Yes” is the winning choice, then the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Resident Commissioner will represent the Island in any required negotiations, while the Equality Commission will advocate for action in Congress.

The Department of Justice

$2.5 million was allocated under the Obama administration for a final plebiscite to clear up the controversies which swirled around the previous votes. The Act discusses this issue, concluding with this statement:

Note that the ministerial duty of the Attorney General under this Act is to certify that the electoral processes and plebiscite options legislated in Puerto Rico, and implemented by the State Election Commission, comply with Public law 113-76 (2014) and the requirements of House Report 113-171 and House Report 116-101, but only with the sole purpose of disbursing the $2.5 million appropriated by Congress. Evidently, when approving the aforementioned Public Law, it was not the intent of Congress to limit, diminish, or delegitimize the right of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to exercise their self-determination regardless of the enforcement of a federal plebiscite law.  Logically, if the Attorney General considers any element to be “incompatible,” he should present his arguments so this Legislative Assembly can take them into consideration.

The Act also refers to PROMESA, noting that the law specifically forbids intervention in status votes by the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board:

“Section 402. Right of Puerto Rico to determine its future political status: Nothing in this Act shall be interpreted to restrict Puerto Rico’s right to determine its future political status, including by conducting the plebiscite as authorized by Public Law 113-76, 2014.”

In the 2017 vote, the DOJ failed to respond in a timely manner to the final ballot. The current Act defends the importance of the DOJ’s responsibility, but also insists that failure of the DOJ to approve the ballot cannot prevent Puerto Rico’s expression of the voters’ will.

“After 122 long years, Puerto Rico continues to be a colonial territory in the most despicable sense of the term. All the federal laws imposed on Puerto Rico, the case law of the Supreme Court of the United States, all the policies promulgated by the President, all the reports and opinions of the technical offices of the White House in 2005, 2007, and 2011, of Congress, as well as of the U.S. Justice Department agree that Puerto Rico is a territory subject to the sovereignty, and unilateral powers of the Government of the United States of America,” the Act continues.

“For 50 long years, between 1967 and 2017, five (5) plebiscites were held which included all possible political status options (Commonwealth or current status of “unincorporated territory,” statehood, independence with a treaty of free association, and full independence). Since statehood received the most votes in the two (2) most recent plebiscites —2012 and 2017— it is now time to make the final demand to Congress by posing the question: Statehood Yes or No.”

Read the full text of the law.

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