Will Puerto Rican Voters Rise Across the Nation?

Will enclaves of ethnic Puerto Rican voters tip the balance of power in Washington?

Nationwide there are over 5 million Americans who are of Puerto Rican origin. It now appears that these Puerto Rican voters could emerge in the 2018 mid-term elections as a cohesive swing vote in battleground races that will determine which national political party controls Congress.

A recent study by a non-partisan research organization and national news coverage of the 2018 mid-term election campaigns identify concentrations of Puerto Ricans in communities scattered throughout Congressional districts in large and small states. The election demographics revealed in the study of swing state voters are changing campaign strategies of candidates in close races who could win or lose based on how Puerto Rican enclaves vote. News coverage of this swing vote impact confirms the potential for a spike in voting tallies for candidates who address issues uniquely important to Americans of Puerto Rican origin.

Data on the Puerto Rican vote in past and current Congressional elections as well as presidential races over the past 20 years demonstrate “politics is local” for Puerto Ricans, who vote on the same economic and social issues as all Americans. What sets Puerto Rican American voters apart is that they also care with remarkable intensity about the impact of federal and even state or local polices on their families and ethnic communities, both in the states and back home on the island that has been ruled by the U.S. for 119 years.

Do Puerto Rican voters vote Puerto Rican?

The are 3.5 million U.S. citizens in the America territory of Puerto Rico who do not have voting rights for equal representation in Congress. That makes most if not all Puerto Ricans in the states who do have voting rights feel responsible in a real sense to represent their fellow Americans back home in how they vote.

That is why the current pro-statehood Governor of Puerto Rico and pro-statehood non-voting delegate to Congress from Puerto Rico are seeking to harness the Puerto Rico vote in the states. The goal is to rally the Puerto Rico vote in the states to support 2018 candidates who understand and are engaged constructively on Puerto Rican issues in Congress.

In Congressional, state and local elections over the last 20 years, federal policy issues perceived by millions of Puerto Rican voters as most impactful for Puerto Rico invariably lead back to the unresolved future political status of the territory. In the 2018 midterm that issue has become inextricably linked to the response in Washington to the historically unprecedented destruction caused in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. The social, economic, and political crisis that has ensued was deepened by the inadequacy of federal measures to restore electricity, water and health care, especially when compared to the federal response possible in hurricane damaged Texas and Florida.

The lack of a natural disaster emergency response by the federal and local territorial government meeting a U.S. standard is itself linked to Puerto Rico’s political status. Even before the hurricanes of 2017, the anachronistic “commonwealth” regime of local territorial government established by Congress in 1950 was failing to maintain and harden infrastructure to withstand intensive storms because of  budget shortages. Congress allowed the territorial government to make promises of a state-like standard of living it could not keep without borrowing more than it could pay back, so investment in public sector capacity building was reduced.

That Congressional policy granting the local territorial “autonomy without accountability” inevitably led to unsustainable expansion and debt financing of the local government, followed by bankruptcy and a federal fiscal takeover suspending the local constitution. This even further restricted limited local self-government under “commonwealth” regime that denies equal rights of U.S citizenship at the national level that comes only with statehood. That includes the right to vote in federal elections for representation in Congress and the Electoral College.

Politics in Puerto Rico are inseparable from the question of whether Puerto Rico’s failed territorial status will be resolved by one of the only two models of a sustainable political economy: statehood or independent nationhood. The current “commonwealth” territorial regime was propped up for decades by failed Congressional policies alternately treating Puerto Rico inconsistently and irrationally as a state, as a federal reservation or even as a foreign nation.

That is why the unsustainable current status was rejected by a clear and undisputed majority rule in 2012. Majority rule in the territory favoring statehood was disputed in vain because it was undeniable in 2012 and only growing stronger since Hurricane Maria.

For a century Puerto Ricans have been serving in the U.S military, and are now woven social political and economic fabric of our nation in every state. The territory now is more integrated into the rest of the nation than any of the 32 other territories admitted as states between 1796 and 1959.

The local government has formally petitioned for statehood. If denied, Puerto Rico would be the first U.S. citizen populated territory in American history to seek but not move forward to eventual full citizenship rights possible only with statehood under the U.S. Constitution.

Ironically, for decades Puerto Ricans in big cities like New York and Chicago have nostalgically favored the sentimental notion of independent nationhood. However, that solution to the political dilemma arising from the essentially “colonial” status of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government has never received more tan 5% of the vote. Instead in recent years Puerto Rican pride in the territory and in the states is causing a shift in focus to the question, “Why not statehood?” Does the Congress think U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are not good enough for statehood?

Some members of Congress have made the mistake of making a once safe but now increasingly offensive argument that Puerto Rico should get statehood “If that is what they want.” Well, that is what a majority want in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans in the states are now beginning with the 2018 elections to ask candidates why not statehood?

The old anti-statehood agenda demanding economic development and an end to predominance of Spanish before statehood can be considered lost relevancy. Puerto Ricans remind candidates that there is a higher percentage of English speakers in Puerto Rico than in Louisiana, New Mexico and California when admitted as states, residents of the island pay billions in federal taxes, and despite bankruptcy of the federally controlled territorial government Puerto Rico is more economically developed than many of the territories that were admitted as states.

So, yes, as demonstrated by the research and news coverage of Puerto Rican voters in the 2018 mid-term elections, candidates who decide Puerto Ricans do not vote Puerto Rico issues do so at their own risk.

The Florida effect

There are over one million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico in Florida, including tens of thousands of Americans who fled the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to escape the social chaos that has persisted since Hurricane Maria. Before coming to Florida as residents of Puerto Rico these U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico are denied the right of voting in federal elections, except for a single delegate in Congress who is allowed to attend committee but has no vote or other constitutional powers.

But upon becoming residents and citizens of a state Americans from Puerto Rico acquire the right to vote for full representation in Congress and the Electoral College. So it is not surprising that the Puerto Rico vote in Florida has been recognized and courted by Republicans and Democrats in U.S. presidential and Congressional elections for more than two decades. The tendency of ethnic Puerto Rican voters in Florida to care what candidates for state and federal office know and are prepared to do to address the interests of 3.5 million Americans in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is not lost on either political party at the local, county, state and national level.

As 2018 mid-term primary elections are followed by the general election in November, what may surprise Republicans and Democrats nationwide is that ethnic Puerto Ricans could become a critical and in some races even decisive swing vote. Thats why Florida’s current Republican Governor Rick Scott – now a U.S. Senate candidate – has made five visits to Puerto Rico to learn first hand why its recovery from Hurricane Maria has stalled. His opponent in that Senate race, Florida’s incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, is playing catch up on his third visit.

Down the ticket candidates who get it are now focused on Congressional, state and even local races on the Puerto Rico vote. How strongly the Puerto Rican communities in the states will reward candidates who shown more than token commitment to Puerto Rico’s future, and punish those who don’t, will be put to the test in the 2018 mid-terms.

One piece of advice to candidates is to avoid saying you are for statehood “if that is what the people want.” Either support statehood or independence, and then defend that position. Continuing the status quo without a policy favoring statehood or independence is historically, legally, politically, socially and constitutionally makes a mockery of democratic self-determination on the real options for a better future in Puerto Rico.

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