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Are Status Votes Unfair?

Members of Congress often say that they don’t know what position to take on Puerto Rico’s status because they don’t have enough information.

Puerto Rico has been a territory– a possession — of the United States for more than a century. People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections and have very limited representation in Congress. All three branches of government have said clearly and frequently that Puerto Rico can continue as a territory or can choose between independence and statehood, and in three successive referenda the voters of Puerto Rico have chosen statehood.

The situation would seem very clear. But there are quite a few sources of confusion that hinder decision making on the subject.

One is the repeated claim that the plebiscites have been unfair.  The reason for this alleged unfairness is that the ballots do not include all possible options for Puerto Rico’s government structure, including variations of the elusive “enhanced Commonwealth” that has been soundly rejected by legal scholars and government officials across the political spectrum for decades.

Unfair votes?

Aníbal Salvador Acevedo Vilá, former Governor of Puerto Rico and former President of the Popular Democratic Party (historically called the “Commonwealth” party and unaffiliated with the national Democratic party), eloquently explained this position at a hearing on Puerto Rico’s political status.

“Commonwealth status,” he said, “is pictured in dark colors and dismissed as a colonial status, unworthy of consideration. Should the people of Puerto Rico churlishly decide to continue backing it, further plebiscites must be held until statehood, independence or free association, involving the loss of United States citizenship, is chosen. It being well known that the people of Puerto Rico want no part of independence and take proper pride in their American citizenship, the result is of course pre-ordained for statehood.”

Acevedo Vilá was speaking not of a Commonwealth territorial status, which the Department of Justice has recommended ncluding in all plebiscite ballots, but of an “enhanced commonwealth” that has repeatedly been rejected by all three branches of the federal government as unconstitutional.

Members of Congress have already many times pointed out that including an unconstitutional choice on a ballot leaves people voting for something they can never have. The ballot might just as well have the option to move Puerto Rico to Jupiter.

Yet, premised on a long history of misleading “commonwealth” options, some still struggle to accept this reality and continue to want aspirational options on the ballot – even though there is no evidence that such governing arrangements are possible.


Another governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, insisted at another Congressional hearing that a referendum without the “enhanced commonwealth” option would “disenfranchise” his supporters.

Acevedo Vilá said much the same thing. His supporters, he said, would be forced to “choose between a colonial denigrating status and losing our American citizenship. To vote in this plebiscite will force us to act against our political beliefs and our freedom of speech.”

Puerto Rico’s residents are in fact disenfranchised when it comes to presidential elections: they cannot vote. Not having your preferred candidate on the ballot is not in fact an example of disenfranchisement.

Regardless of the facts in the case, it is clear that there have been and still are people in Puerto Rico and in the states who want an “enhanced commonwealth” and feel strongly that they should be able to vote for it, even though it is clear that the United States government cannot implement that status option. As long as this feeling remains, there will be people who find the votes on Puerto Rico’s status unfair.

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