AP Story Mischaracterizes Puerto Rican Rejection of Territory Status.
Puerto Ricans will be marching in Washington, D.C., San Juan, and other cities on March 2, the anniversary of the day in 1917 when Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. The purpose of the marches is to demand that Congress honor the November plebiscite and provide equality to the people of Puerto Rico.
The Associated Press reported on the planned events, saying
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but are not allowed to vote for a president and have a representative in Congress with limited voting rights.
In the first question of November’s two-part referendum, 54 percent of voters said they were not content with commonwealth status.
The second question asked what status was preferred. Of the about 1.3 million voters who made a choice, nearly 800,000 supported statehood.
The story accurately reported that Puerto Rico’s residents, though citizens, are not allowed to vote in presidential elections. The article is also technically accurate in stating that Puerto Ricans have a representative in Congress with limited voting rights. Although Puerto Rico’s representative can vote on a bill during committee consideration, Puerto Rico has no voice on the passage of any legislation being considered by the full House of Representatives or Senate.
Yet the AP story is not accurate in its characterization of the first question on the November ballot as a rejection of the “commonwealth status.” The ballot explicitly posed the question of whether Puerto Rico “should continue to have its present form of territorial status,” to which 54% of voters answered “no.” The first question represented a rejection of Puerto Rico’s territorial status – not a more vague “commonwealth” status.
Although Puerto Rico is often referred to as a “commonwealth,” the term has no legal meaning. The states of Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania also use the term “commonwealth” to describe their status. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.
The label “commonwealth” started being used to describe Puerto Rico in the 1950’s, soon after Congress approved Puerto Rico’s local constitution, called the “Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” Both Congress and the Truman Administration were clear, however, that the law they passed only granted Puerto Rico power over its local affairs and did “not change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.” Puerto Rico remained a territory.
Three referenda were held before the November 2012 vote in which Puerto Ricans were asked to select their desired status. All three were determined to be inconclusive due to confusion over “Commonwealth” proposals contained on the ballots. Each one of the “Commonwealth” proposals – in 1967, 1993 and again in 1998 – diverged from the current territorial governing arrangement in Puerto Rico and were later determined by Federal officials to be unconstitutional and not viable. The three different “Commonwealth” definitions also diverged from each other even though they shared a common label.
It is not just meaningless to describe Puerto Rico as having “commonwealth status.” Given the history of the word’s usage in previous plebiscites, it is actually misleading and unfair to readers who have little knowledge of the term’s long and confusing history. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and “territory” is the term that most clearly and accurately describes Puerto Rico’s status with the rest of the United States.