President of the Puerto Rico Senate Thomas Rivera Schatz has proposed an up or down vote on statehood for the 2020 elections in November.
Senate Bill 1467, translated as the Law for the Final Solution of the Political Status of Puerto Rico, calls for a plebiscite during the general elections on November 3, 2020, which will ask voters, “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a state?”
The possible answers will be “yes” or “no.”
Just like Hawaii and Alaska?
This was the question asked of Hawaii and of Alaska, the most recent territories to become States. Many Puerto Rico leaders, including Governor Vazquez and Congresswoman Gonzalez-Colon, support an up or down vote on statehood. If statehood wins, as it did in 2012 and 2017, Puerto Rico will have a clear path to statehood. The U.S. Congress will no longer be able to make the spurious claim that Puerto Rico just needs to make up its mind.
However, Rivera Schatz added a twist. The bill defines the yes or no votes in new and special ways.
The “yes” means that the voter claims the federal government to immediately recognize the equality of duties and rights of American citizens with the status “in permanent union with all the states of the Union.” The “no” means the rejection of the permanent union with statehood and a claim to the federal government to “immediately recognize the sovereignty of Puerto Rico separated from the United States of America with a treaty of independence in free association or with total independence.”
A “yes” for statehood will be a vote for statehood, as in previous plebiscites. But a “no” would be a vote for independence, with or without free association. It would not be possible to vote for continued territory status.
The U.S. Department of Justice insisted in 2017 that the status quo option be included in the referendum. However, since the territory option was soundly rejected in both 2012 and 2017, many Puerto Rico leaders are open to what is in fact a choice between the two remaining options under the U.S. Constitution: statehood or independence. This will also avoid the problem which has arisen in previous plebiscites, of having people vote for “enhanced commonwealth,” which the U.S. government has consistently rejected as a viable status option.
A binding referendum?
It is in the nature of plebiscites that they are not binding. This type of vote is usually a question of finding out the will of the people. The government then has the choice of following that will or of ignoring the vote.
An article in The Hill mistakenly claimed that “Puerto Rico voted in 2012 and 2017 to become a state, but those referendums were declared nonbinding by the federal government, the former because nearly half a million voters left their ballots blank and the latter because the wording on the ballot did not receive prior approval from the Department of Justice.”
In fact, neither of the votes was declared non-binding. Nor was either ever declared binding, before or after the votes took place.
Rivera Schatz plans to get around this basic issue by making a committee responsible for carrying the results of the plebiscite to the U.S. Congress.
“If the “yes” is won, after no more than 15 days after the result is certified, the governor will designate a transition commission consisting of seven members: two government officials, the resident commissioner and four members of the principal representative that the State Election Commission (EEC) certified to represent the winning status alternative.”
These people will be responsible for getting Congress to take action on what will be the third vote for statehood.
If independence — a “no” vote — wins, then another committee of seven will be responsible for demanding independence from the federal government.
The law calls for the funding for the referendum and the follow-up communication with the federal government to be paid for from the $ 2.5 million authorized in 2014 for a final plebiscite. Under the terms of that authorization, the Department of Justice must approve the ballot.
It also specifically says that improper votes (such as blank ballots) or low voter turnout will not affect the outcome.