Unite States Department of Justice (DOJ) Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen wrote a letter to Puerto Rico State Elections Commission Chairman Juan Ernesto Davila Rivera on July 29th explaining that the Department refused to provide funding Congress approved in 2014 for the upcoming Puerto Rico plebiscite because DOJ had rejected the November plebiscite ballot and related materials based on reasons related to both timing and substance.
The role of the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the 2014 federal law is to ensure that all options on a federally-funded plebiscite are compatible with “the Constitution and laws and policies of the United States.”
Governor Wanda Vazquez responded with a letter on September 16th of this year.
First, Rosen said that the materials were not received in time for the Department of Justice to complete the required process. He also mentioned that no voter education material had been included.
The governor disputed this claim, saying that the Department of Justice had missed its deadlines, and that Puerto Rico still needed the funding to make sure the referendum can be carried out correctly.
She referenced House Report 116-101, which calls on the Department of Justice to produce a report within 45 days of the passage of the act (in November, 2019) clarifying their requirements for the use of the funding. This has not yet taken place.
“Apart from that timing issue,” Rosen wrote, “the Department has also identified substantive concerns with the plebiscite materials.” These concerns are listed below with bullets, each followed by the governor’s response.
- The materials approach the issue from a “pro-statehood and anti-territorial” position. Rosen says that the United States government has a neutral position on Puerto Rico’s status.
Vazquez expressed concern that the DOJ was favoring the territory option. She pointed out that the 2017 ballot included the territory status, but its language was still not approved by the Department of Justice.
- The materials also take the position that the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites constitute a rejection of the territory status.
Vazquez referred to House Report 116-101, which states that “the current territorial/Commonwealth status should be excluded from any future plebiscite, since it fails to address key inequities.”
- The ballot contains the word “immediately,” which might make people think that statehood would automatically follow a YES vote. Rosen expressed a concern that this would confuse voters.
Governor Vazquez pointed out that the ballot question asks, “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted as a state?”, not “Will” the admission take place. She also suggested that Congress’s failure to act on the 2012 and 2017 votes has made Puerto Rico aware that statehood is not automatically granted by a vote.
The governor ended her letter by expressing her determination to give the people of Puerto Rico an opportunity to express their status preference and a reiteration of her hope that the Department of Justice will continue to work with Puerto Rico.
Download PDF files of the letters;