And Yet More Confusion over “Commonwealth”: Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite History

Three referenda held to provide Puerto Ricans with self determination have been inconclusive due to confusion over “Commonwealth” proposals that are different from the current governing arrangement and different from one another and were later determined by Federal officials to not be viable.

The list below summarizes the three status plebiscites that have been held in Puerto Rico and their outcomes.

July 23, 1967

  • 60%                 Commonwealth with some national government powers
  • 38.9%              Statehood
  • 0.6%                Independence

Legislation for this proposed Commonwealth option was rejected by the President and Congress in 1976.

November 14, 1993

  • 48.6%              Commonwealth with autonomy from federal tax laws, and greater tax, trade, and social programs benefits
  • 46.3%              Statehood
  • 4.4%                Independence

Within a year after this vote, Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly petitioned Congress to either: (1) implement the commonwealth status option as defined on the 1993 ballot, or (2) adopt a federal measure to clarify the specific status alternatives Congress is willing to consider.  Congressional committee leaders and the Clinton White House determined that the “Commonwealth” proposal could not be implemented for constitutional and policy reasons and because it had not been supported by a majority vote.

In 1997, the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly again petitioned Congress but with a more direct request: to pass a federal referendum law clarifying the possible terms by which Puerto Rico could achieve a non-territory status.  The House passed such a bill (H.R. 856) on March 4, 1998.  This legislation would have provided the people of Puerto Rico with a choice among the established, federally recognized options of self determination: the current territorial status, statehood, independence, and nationhood in a free (voluntary) association with the United States.  The legislation was blocked in the Senate, however, which pledged to consider a Puerto Rican choice of a status option other than the present status.

December 13, 1998

  • .06%              Current territory status
  • .1%                  Free association
  • 2.5%               Independence
  • 46.5%            Statehood
  • 50.3%            None of the Above [supported by voters who supported Enhanced Commonwealth, free association, and independence]

After this plebiscite, President Clinton established a task force to more clearly define Puerto Rico’s options and advise on proposals for a process for a Puerto Rican status choice.  In December 2005, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status – which was by then under the direction of President George W. Bush – announced its recommendations:

  • Congress should provide for periodic plebiscites to provide Puerto Ricans with a choice between the current territory status and a status other than territory.
  •  If a majority opts to pursue status other than territory, Congress should provide for a plebiscite among statehood, independence and, if Congress chooses, nationhood in free association with the U.S.
  • Congress should implement statehood or a nationhood status if chosen.

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Democratic Party Platform Highlights Need to Address Puerto Rico’s Status as a Territory - Puerto Rico Report

[…] Previous referenda in Puerto Rico about its political status have been inconclusive due to confusion over the constitutionality of different “commonwealth” options offered to voters.  The platform calls upon Congress to enact “a set of clear status option” as recommended in the 2011 President’s Task Force Report on Puerto Rico’s Status if “local efforts in Puerto Rico to resolve the status issue do not provide a clear result in the short term.”  Puerto Ricans will vote on their preferred political status again on election day, November 6th. […]

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