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Columbia Law School Expert Analyzes Puerto Rico Plebiscite Vote

Columbia Law School professor Christina Duffy Ponsa has published a thoughtful essay about the November 6th Puerto Rico plebiscite.  A nationally recognized expert on the constitutional implications of American territorial expansion, Ms. Duffy Ponsa’s analysis is a concise, easy read on the implications of the recent vote.  She wrote:

On November 6, while a majority of the American electorate was casting its ballot for four more years, a majority of the electorate in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was casting its ballot for not one more minute. In a plebiscite addressing Puerto Rico’s troubled relationship with the United States, 54 percent of the voters called for an end to the island’s current “commonwealth” status—a status falling somewhere in between statehood and independence, though where exactly it falls, no one seems to know. . . . And among those who proceeded to choose an alternative, a robust majority of 61 percent opted for statehood. It was an historic vote: The island’s first-ever majority vote in favor of joining the Union as the 51st state.

Yet the results of the plebiscite immediately gave rise to controversy, with statehood opponents complaining that the ballot was flawed both procedurally (they didn’t like its two-step structure) and substantively (they didn’t like how it defined the political status options). These criticisms came as little surprise: Commonwealth supporters have made an art of objecting to any process that could potentially yield a victory for statehood—including earlier processes involving just one step and different definitions of the options. Indeed, both the two-step process and the definitions this time around were consistent with recommendations in reports produced by both the Bush White House Task Force on Puerto Rico and the Obama White House Task Force on Puerto Rico. Moreover, the critics have not helped their cause by throwing in a smattering of less plausible complaints. (For instance, because the governor-elect doesn’t support statehood himself, the plebiscite didn’t count. Or it might look like statehood won, but statehood actually lost—perhaps they’re reading the results upside down?)

Even so, their objections have thrown sand in the gears, and a true resolution to Puerto Rico’s “status problem” likely remains a long way off. This, too, is unsurprising: Puerto Rico’s legal and political relationship with the United States has from the start been the source of stormy and contentious debate. Annexed by the United States after the war with Spain in 1898, Puerto Rico has been a “territory” of the United States for nearly 115 years, and since 1917, persons born in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens at birth. Because the island is not a state of the Union, however, these 4 million U.S. citizens have no voting representation in the federal government: no presidential vote, no Senators, and no Representatives except for one non-voting “Resident Commissioner” in the House. (They also don’t pay federal income taxes, but they do pay other federal taxes, and very high local taxes to boot.) Little wonder that a majority of Puerto Ricans want an end to the island’s current status.

What they want instead, though, is a thornier question. In 1993, “commonwealth” and statehood split the vote 48 percent-46 percent (that’s right—virtually no Puerto Ricans support independence), and in 1998, a majority of 50.3 percent succeeded mainly in confusing matters by voting for “None of the Above”—a result that led to nothing except more of the same. Now, a clear majority among those who expressed a preference chose statehood. While statehood supporters are not sanguine about what comes next, they hope that at the very least, the result of this most recent plebiscite will be remembered as the beginning of the end of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition.




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