In 2014, the U.S. government approved funding for a new status vote in Puerto Rico — if the U.S. Department of Justice agreed that the options on the ballot were constitutional.
A proposal was made for an up or down vote on statehood for Puerto Rico, a vote like the ones Hawaii and Alaska held in the 1950s. Then a ballot was developed that offered a choice between the two non-territorial options consistent with the U.S. constitution: statehood and independence. Independence could include a compact of free association or not.
The Department of Justice rejected that ballot for two primary reasons: first, they indicated that continuing as a territory is a viable option under the constitution; and second, they thought the description of free association might sound like “enhanced commonwealth.” The DOJ wanted to be sure that voters did not imagine that “enhanced commonwealth” was a viable option.
The Status Options
Puerto Rico has three status options:
- Continue as a territory.
- Become an independent nation.
- Become a state.
A plebiscite held in 2012 had one question asking whether or not voters wanted to continue as a territory. 54% said “no.” Many experts concluded that the option of remaining as a territory should not be on the 2017 ballot, since the voters of Puerto Rico had already rejected it. Since the Justice Department disagreed, the 2017 plebiscite also included the territorial option. Statehood received 97% of the votes, with the remaining 3% fairly evenly divided between continuing as a territory and independence.
Puerto Rico can continue to be a territory.
Recent Supreme Court cases, including both Puerto Rico vs. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust and Puerto Rico vs. Sanchez-Valle, concluded that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty, as all three branches of government have been insisting for many years.
The Department of Justice, in their letter rejecting the 2017 plebiscite ballot, confirmed once again that the idea of “enhanced commonwealth” is not a viable option. They said it was not “clear that a vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence,” and expressed concern that “[v]oters may misperceive this difference to suggest that Free Association is an ‘enhanced Commonwealth’ option, when the reality is that both choices would result in complete and unencumbered independence and both would require an assessment of a variety of issues related to citizenship.”
In other words, if Puerto Rico votes to remain a territory, they will be as they are now an unincorporated territory of the United States with no special deal that would make Puerto Rico anything other than “a mere territory,” as the former governor put it.
The status that brought Puerto Rico to its current fiscal crisis would continue, with no more likelihood of negotiating a special deal than it has had in the past.
Puerto Rico can choose independence.
Puerto Rico can declare independence, with or without a plan to negotiate a Compact of Free Association (COFA). Independence would make Puerto Rico a sovereign nation, separate from the United States. Puerto Rico could make treaties with other nations, field sports teams as a nation, and create Puerto Rican currency.
Puerto Rico might be able to negotiate a Compact of Free Association with the United States. If both sides agree, Puerto Rico might be able to have some financial support from the United States, military defense, and the right to travel freely to the U.S. without a visa. Any of those things — if the U.S. agreed to them — would last only as long as the U.S. continues to agree. Either the U.S. or Puerto Rico could end or change the compact at any time, and Puerto Rico would have no representative within the United States government (such as a Resident Commissioner) to negotiate.
Citizens of Puerto Rico could probably not expect to continue as citizens of the United States permanently, nor could they expect their children or grandchildren to be U.S. citizens if they were born in Puerto Rico. If the current Compacts of Free Association are any indication, the compact for Puerto Rico would be temporary, and the terms would become less favorable over time.
With or without free association, Puerto Rico would be an independent nation, and the United States would have no obligation to support Puerto Rico any more than it is obligated to support any other nation in the world. In fact, the U.S. offers quite a bit of support to other nations, but Puerto Ricans could not later change their minds and choose territory or statehood status if the terms negotiated between the two nations were not satisfying.
Puerto Rico can become a state.
So far, the United States has never rejected a territory that asked for statehood, though the path to statehood has sometimes taken a long time.
As the 51st State, Puerto Rico would have all the rights and responsibilities the current 50 States have. The Island would be entitled to equal treatment with regard to state grants, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as representative voices within the Federal government.
A territory can legally be treated differently from States, but States are all equal to one another under the U.S. Constitution.
Residents of Puerto Rico would have full representation in the Senate and in House of Representatives, and would have the opportunity to vote for U.S. President.
If we compare territories which became States in the mid 20th century, Alaska and Hawaii, with the territories which negotiated COFAs, it is impossible to deny that the States are far better off economically. They have full participation in U.S. democracy. People born in the States also have U.S. citizenship.
Puerto Rico can expect, since the rights of States are part of the U.S. Constitution, that the State of Puerto Rico would have all these things as well.
These are the status options available to people in Puerto Rico.