Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi recently made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives to convey the results of the recent plebiscite to the American public, describe the significance of those results, and outline the steps he plans to take to implement them.
Pierluisi first explained how plebiscite voters were asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a territory. He noted that over 1.7 million people answered this question, roughly 75 percent of registered voters on the island, and that fifty-four percent said they did not want the current status to continue while forty-six percent said they did. Pierluisi then outlined how voters were asked to express their preference among the three viable alternatives to the current status (statehood, free association, and independence) and that over 1.3 million people chose an option. Sixty-one percent voted for statehood, thirty-three percent voted for free association, and five percent voted for independence. He noted that 472,000 voters did not provide an answer.
Pierluisi – who is Puerto Rico’s lone, non-voting Member of Congress – then interpreted the plebiscite results for his colleagues and pledged to honor the votes of his constituents by bringing democracy to the United States’s largest territory:
“This plebiscite marked the first time voters were directly asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a territory. One of the two main political parties in Puerto Rico urged a “yes” vote. Nevertheless, the “no” vote won by eight points. Those voting “no” included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of independence and free association. These three groups are united in their opposition to the current status which is colonial in nature. It deprives Puerto Ricans of their right to choose their leaders who make their national laws and to equal treatment under those laws.
Not one of my stateside colleagues in Congress would accept this response for their constituents. So they should respect that my constituents no longer accept it either.
The rejection of territory status fundamentally changes the terms of this debate. After this vote, the question is not whether but when Puerto Rico will cease to be a territory and will have a fully democratic status. Defenders of the status quo may obstruct change in the short term, but in a democracy, the will of the people ultimately prevails.
Let me turn to the second question in the plebiscite, asking voters which status should replace the current status. Of the 1.3 million people who voted for one of the three options, a supermajority chose statehood. Of critical importance, the 810,000 votes for statehood on the second question exceeded the 803,000 votes for the current status on the first question. For the first time, there are more people in Puerto Rico who want to become a State than who want to continue as a territory. This fact further undermines the democratic legitimacy of the current status.
Some wish to downplay the results of the plebiscite by citing the voters who left the second question blank, but this argument does not withstand scrutiny. In our democracy, outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. Power rests with the citizen who votes, not the one who stays home or who refuses to choose from among the options provided.
Some voters may have left the second question blank simply because they prefer the current status to its alternatives. Those voters were able to vote for the current status in the first question. So their viewpoint was reflected in the plebiscite results. Others may have declined to answer because they were led to believe there was another option that should have been on the ballot, a best-of-all-worlds proposal called “enhanced commonwealth.” But each of the last four Presidential administrations has rejected this proposal, as have all key congressional leaders. A blank vote to protest the exclusion of an impossible status proposal is entitled to no weight.
As Puerto Rico’s representative in the U.S. Congress, I will work with my allies to ensure that the President and Congress take appropriate action in light of these results. The people of Puerto Rico have spoken, and I intend to make certain that their voice is heard loud and clear.”