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Congress’s Support for Voting Rights Should Extend to Puerto Rico

Congress passed a bold new voting rights bill mandating automatic voter registration, a federal Election Day holiday, an end to aggressive purging of voter rolls, an end to gerrymandering, and more national efforts to make voting easier for American citizens.

Every Democrat in the House voted for the bill.

Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the minority leader in the Senate, also spoke out passionately in favor of voting rights in an interview in The Atlantic. He also declared his support for the recent bill presented regarding statehood for Washington, D.C.  Democrats, he said, “have to start standing for voting rights.”

On commenting on D.C. statehood petition, Schumer noted that he would also support statehood for Puerto Rico, but “they are not sure they want statehood. But D.C.  had a referendum, they want statehood, and we should have them be allowed to vote in federal elections — have congressmen, have senators, etc.”

Andres Cordova, a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, writes in The Hill that Democrats can’t claim to care about voting rights and yet ignore Puerto Rico’s votes in favor of statehood.

Are Democrats ignoring Puerto Rico?

As Cordova points out, Puerto Rico has had three referenda in the past two decades.

  • In 1998, of the four viable options for status listed on the ballot, statehood had the highest proportion of votes at 46.5 percent.  By Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court mandate, a “none of the above” alternative was also included, and which garnered a 50.3 percent of the votes.  This option reflected the then electoral dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Georges in 1998, but it is not a status alternative.
  • In 2012, 54% of voters rejected the current territorial status and 61% (in a separate question) chose statehood among the viable status options. The White House declared this a “clear result.”
  • In 2017, 97% of voters chose statehood.

For Democratic lawmakers now to say that Puerto Rico is “not sure that they want statehood” is to ignore the votes or get sidetracked on issues that are not relevant in democratic elections.

Respect the vote

Objections to the details of the status votes are not based on U.S. laws or customs. The is no quorum required for votes in the United States, blank votes are normal and have no effect on the results, and boycotts are irrelevant.

Dallas voted in a mayor with 6% voter turnout. Compare that with the 2017 referendum in Puerto Rico. 24% turned out — a low voter turnout for Puerto Rico but clearly much higher than the vote in Dallas. 97% of those who voted chose statehood. That’s half a million voters.

Refusal to respect the votes already taken in Puerto Rico make the Democratic response to Puerto Rico’s votes appear hypocritical. They are not calling, as Cordova points out, for a new, more accurate vote. They are talking vaguely about consensus, which is not, as former Residential Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi has pointed out, how democracy works.

A commitment to voting rights should include voting in Puerto Rico.

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