The next Puerto Rico status vote will take place during the general election in November 2020. The U.S. citizens who are registered to vote in Puerto Rico will be able to vote yes or no for statehood for Puerto Rico.
No one else will be allowed to vote. But in the floor debate before the 1998 plebiscite, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) proposed that people born in Puerto Rico but living in a State should be allowed to vote in that status referendum.
“I know this is going to sound funny, thinking in terms of States, the idea of one person living in one State voting in another State, we would never agree to that,” Rep. Serrano said. “But this is not about voting in another State. This is about the future of a territory, of a colony. And when that future is decided forever, and statehood its forever and independence is forever and an associated republic is forever… then all the children of the territory, all of the children of the colony should be allowed to vote.”
Carlos Romero-Barcelo, the Resident Commissioner at the time, said that “those who are not going to receive the negative or favorable impact of that vote will then impose their will on the people of Puerto Rico.” He conceded that there would be an “emotional impact” on Puerto Ricans living in States, but that the practical impact of the vote would affect those who live in the territory.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) agreed with Rep.Serrano. She said that she had left Puerto Rico because of political persecution. “Of course I should have a right to have a say in that determination,” she exclaimed.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) also spoke in favor of Serrano’s amendment. While he expressed discomfort with the idea of non-residents participating in the vote, he pointed out that people born in Puerto Rico have statutory citizenship. They are U.S. citizens because of a law Congress passed in 1917. In theory, he said, people born in Puerto Rico and living in the States could lose their citizenship if Puerto Rico chose independence.
This, he said, would directly affect those individuals. Therefore, he would favor a vote in the plebiscite for everyone born in Puerto Rico.
At this point in the debate, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) spoke up. “Does anybody really believe in this room that this Congress would ever take away the citizenship of 3.8 million people?”
Serrano responded, “Would they do it? Probably not. Would a court uphold it? Possibly not. Can they do it? Absolutely.”
Romero-Barcelo pointed out that U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, even though the President of the United States clearly affects the residents of Puerto Rico.
“When they moved to a State, then they acquired residency in the State and they can vote in national elections for the President, they can vote for a Congressman, they can vote for a Senator… They have a full vote,” he said. “We cannot vote in their States. We cannot vote in anything that affects them, and we have family and relatives in the States.”
Allowing those people to vote in Puerto Rico without residence, Romero-Barcelo said, would set “a very, very bad precedent.”
Congress voted not to allow people living in a state to vote in the Puerto Rico status referendum.
Congress has not yet expressed any opinion on the 2020 referendum, and there is no expectation that anyone apart from residents of Puerto Rico will be able to vote in that plebiscite. It is interesting to see the level of Congressional emotional investment in the question in 1998.