The Puerto Rico Senate has approved legislation to hold a plebiscite on June 11, 2017 to determine Puerto Rico’s status. There will be two options on the ballot: statehood and independence.
The Senate proposal, which was given the symbolic bill number 51, was authored by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz of the New Progressive Party (PNP). It has been endorsed by members of the independence and statehood parties in Puerto Rico.
Members of the “commonwealth” party sought to delay the vote, insisting that a choice between statehood and independence would disenfranchise those voters who prefer a “commonwealth” option. “Commonwealth” has been rejected consistently by Congress and the executive branch over the past several decades as unconstitutional as well as “unrealistic,” “deceptive,” “unacceptable, and an “unattainable myth.”
A variety of “commonwealth” definitions were proposed in the Puerto Rico Senate, including “developed ELA” and “None of the above,” but all such proposals failed. These recommendations echo the various “commonwealth” options that were contained on previous ballots, all of which were rejected after causing substantial confusion.
The U.S. law providing the funding for the plebiscite requires approval of all options by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department has already said that “enhanced commonwealth” is not a viable option, under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Senator Eduardo Bhatia, spokesman for the PPD “commonwealth” delegation, argued during the debate that excluding “commonwealth” would mean that “there is no true democracy.”
However, as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is under the power of Congress. Recent Supreme Court rulings have confirmed this fact, as has the passage of PROMESA. The decision on which options are constitutional will be made by the United States Department of Justice, as set forth in a 2014 law.
The Senate did approve a clarification designed to avoid the problems with the 2012 referendum by explicitly noting that ballots left blank in the plebiscite would not have any effect on the vote, which is always the case in voting in the states.
The bill further provides that, if the option of sovereignty prevails in the June plebiscite, then on October 8 a referendum with “Free Association” and “Independence” would be held as the only alternatives. Both of these options would represent a severe break from the United States that would jeopardize current U.S. citizenship for individuals born in Puerto Rico as well as involvement in social programs (e.g. Medicaid, nutrition assistance), and resources to combat illegal drugs and strengthen the island’s defense.