In a letter sent to Governor Rosselló yesterday, the United States Department of Justice cited “multiple considerations” in rejecting the Puerto Rican government’s proposed ballot for its status referendum planned for June 11, 2017.
Writing for the Department, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana J. Boente stated that federal policy requires “that the popular will of the people of Puerto Rico should be ascertained in a way that provides a clear result” and concluded that the June plebiscite ballot did not meet this standard because “it is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico.”
The first problem cited by Mr. Boente was that the the ballot omits Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. “This omission,” the letter says, “appears to be based on a determination that the people of Puerto Rico definitively rejected Puerto Rico’s current status in the plebiscite held on November 6,2012.” The 2012 vote, however, has been “a subject of controversy” according to the Department, and “significant political, economic, and demographic changes have occurred in Puerto Rico and the United States” since that vote. “As a result,” the letter concludes, “it is uncertain that it is the present will of the people to reject Puerto Rico’s current status.”
“Accordingly, any plebiscite that now seeks to ‘resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status’ should include the current territorial status as an option,” the letter states, “[o]therwise, there would be ‘real questions about the vote’s legitimacy’ and its ability to reflect accurately the will of the people.”
The Department also determined that some statements in the ballot were “ambiguous and potentially misleading.” For example, Justice found the description of statehood as the only option that “guarantees the American citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico” to be inaccurate because “under current law, Puerto Ricans have an unconditional statutory right to birthright citizenship.” The letter appears to recognize but did not elaborate an the implications of having birthright citizenship in Puerto Rico that is based on a statute rather than the Constitution. U.S. citizenship obtained in the fifty states is based on the Constitution.
The Justice Department was also critical of the description of “Free Association” option on the ballot because the description of that option was not “clear that a vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence.” Pointing out that the ballot definition of “Free Association” addresses the fate of U.S. citizenship under the island’s new sovereignty while the “Independence” option is silent, the Department cautioned that “[v]oters may misperceive this difference to suggest that Free Association is an ‘enhanced Commonwealth” option, when the reality is that both choices would result in complete and unencumbered independence and both would require an assessment of a variety of issues related to citizenship.”