Melissa Mark-Viverito recently wrote an opinion piece at The Hill claiming that statehood for Puerto Rico is not a good idea. She used Florida Governor Rick Scott’s support of statehood as her starting point, but the post is not about Governor Scott or his views.
Mark-Viverito is instead trying to claim that Puerto Rico’s voters do not want statehood. Gov. Scott said that the federal government should ‘respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico.’ Mark-Viverito agrees. Now, what’s the will of the people?
Puerto Rico has three viable status options.
Under the U.S constitution, Puerto Rico can become an independent nation. Independence has never gotten more than 5% of the vote in any plebiscite. No Independence Party governor has ever been elected. It is clear that the voters of Puerto Rico do not want independence. What’s more, the latest bill for independence in Puerto Rico introduced in Congress, HR 900, had one sponsor and zero co-sponsors, and died in committee without discussion. Independence is popular among some communities of Puerto Ricans who have chose to move to the States, but is not appealing to Puerto Rico or to Congress.
Mark-Viverito herself is known as a supporter of independence activist Oscar Lopez.
A second possibility is statehood. Puerto Rico can become a state, as 32 other territories have done so far.The referenda held in 2012 and 2017 favored statehood. More on this later.
The third possibility under the U.S. Constitution is for Puerto Rico to remain an unincorporated territory, as it is now.
These are the only viable options for Puerto Rico’s political status, according to the federal government. Puerto Rico leaders have in the past asked for an “enhanced commonwealth” option, but this possibility has been firmly rejected by all three branches of the federal government, many times.
The continued fantasy of enhanced commonwealth is important, because it has been one of the choices on some of the referendum ballots. It has even won. However, Congress has ignored those plebiscites completely, because that is not a possible outcome under the U.S. Constitution.
What happened in the plebiscites?
The first status vote was held in 1967. “Commonwealth” was presented on that ballot as an alternative equivalent to statehood or independence. Actually, “commonwealth” is legally meaningless in the United States. Kentucky and a number of other states have “commonwealth” in their names just as Puerto Rico does. The “commonwealth” option got the most votes, but it was in effect a vote to continue as a territory.
In 1993, the same options were provided, and “commonwealth” received the largest number of votes (48.9%), but not a majority. After the 1993 vote, Congressman Don Young expressed his sorrow that the people of Puerto Rico had been tricked into voting for a status – a definition of “commonwealth” with autonomy from federal tax laws, and greater tax, trade, and social programs benefits – that would not be accepted by the federal government. It was determined to be unconstitutional by the Clinton administration.
In 1998, the “commonwealth” option was therefore left off the ballot. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Carlos Romero-Barcelo, said that it “would not be acceptable to Congress. So therefore, to submit a proposal, as such, to the people of Puerto Rico, would be unfair to the people of Puerto Rico. It would be mischievous to the people of Puerto Rico… And to have it in a bill offering it to the people of Puerto Rico would be fooling the people of Puerto Rico.”
This is what Mark-Viverito describes as “the statehood movement attempted to rig the process and held a referendum in 1998 which excluded the Commonwealth option.”
In that election, the winner was “none of the above.” It is true that people in Puerto Rico have in the past voted for the so-called “commonwealth,” option and the “none of the above” vote might (or might not) have been a vote for that option.
It doesn’t really matter. An enhanced “commonwealth” is not a viable option. It might sound good to people, but it is not actually one of the possible status choices. Voters in Puerto Rico do not have the power, because of the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to make unilateral decisions about their relationship with the United States. Puerto Rico couldn’t even ratify its own Constitution without Congress first mandating changes to it.
Having had multiple votes choosing an option which the United States could not accept — and did not accept — Puerto Rico tried again to hold a status vote with only the viable options.
In 2012, another referendum was held. This one asked two questions:
First, should Puerto Rico keep the current territorial status. These were the results:
- No: 970,910 (53.97%)
- Yes: 828,077 (46.03%)
- Blank: 67,267
- Invalidated: 12,948
Second, regardless of the answer to the first question, which of the viable options should become the permanent political status of Puerto Rico. These were the results:
- Statehood: 834,191 (61.16%)
- Sovereign free associated state: 454,768 (33.34%)
- Independence: 74,895 (5.49%)
- Blank: 498,604
- Invalidated: 16,744
Mark-Viverito claims that statehood received 46% of the vote because some people didn’t vote on the second question. Even with that rationale,the numbers above show that 834,191 people voted for statehood on the second question, while only 828,077 voted for the current territorial option in the first question.
Regardless, 53.97% said that they did not want to continue as a territory. This is a clear majority. Independence, with 5.49% of the vote, was rejected. Continuing as a territory, with 46.03% of the vote, was rejected. Mark-Viverito says that “the statehood party once again tried to rig the ballot by excluding ‘None of the Above.'”
“None of the Above” is clearly not a viable status option.
In 2017, another referendum was held. The elected leaders of Puerto Rico said that the territorial status had already been rejected by a majority of voters in 2012. The numbers above show that this was true. They proposed a choice between independence and statehood.
As always, the supporters of “enhanced commonwealth” insisted that this option be included. Even though the U.S. government had clearly and repeatedly said that the enhanced commonwealth option was “not viable,” this group wanted it to be listed.
The Department of Justice did not accept either of these ideas. They wanted voters to be able to choose to continue as a territory. They also wanted it to be clear that “Free Associated State” means independence, not “enhanced commonwealth.”
The changes were made, and Puerto Rico went ahead with the scheduled referendum.
The opposition parties called for a boycott. As many observers pointed out, no one calls for a boycott when they expect to win. In addition, boycotts don’t matter in democracies – voters either come to the polls or don’t have a voice.
97% of the votes were for statehood.
Voter participation was low — for Puerto Rico. In fact, there is no quorum requirement for votes in the United States, and the turnout was not unusually low for American votes. The results of the 2017 referendum, like those of the 2012 referendum, were conclusive.
What does Mark-Viverito want?
Supporters of the fantasy option of “enhanced commonwealth” have a history of sabotaging plebiscites by, most notably, using unviable ballot definitions or boycotting and then claiming insufficient turnout. Independence Party supporters have a history of saying that they will not accept any result but independence, whether the residents of Puerto Rico vote for it or not.
Mark-Viverito says that “What Puerto Rico deserves is a fair and inclusive self-determination process to end more than 100 years of U.S. colonialism in the island.”
Many processes have been tried. The current elected leaders of Puerto Rico have officially requested statehood. A shadow delegation has come to Congress. A referendum is not legally required — Alabama, for example, never held a plebiscite on statehood. The decision is with Congress.