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A vote on voting on statehood for Puerto Rico

April 26, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The House of Representatives has something on their docket this week called the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009. People on Twitter are referring to it as a vote on making Puerto Rico the 51st state. That’s not quite accurate, though the bill would make Puerto Rican statehood a stronger possibility than it has ever been.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Currently, all Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, they have a non-voting “resident commissioner” in the U.S. House of Representatives (Pedro Pierluisi [D, PR-0]), they have some governing autonomy in their internal affairs, but on their most contentious and most important political issue, their political status and relationship to the U.S., governance decisions are held by the U.S. Congress and the President under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Passage of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, which is sponsored by Resident Commissioner Pierluisi, would send a message to Puerto Ricans that the U.S. is prepared to change the political status of Puerto Rico if that is what they want. Specifically, the bill would authorize Puerto Rico to hold a two-step voting process on the question of their political status and relationship to the U.S. The fist vote (called a “plebiscite”) would be on whether to consider changing their political status. From the bill:

(a) First Plebiscite- The Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct a plebiscite in Puerto Rico. The 2 options set forth on the ballot shall be preceded by the following statement: ‘Instructions: Mark one of the following 2 options:

(1) Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XX.

(2) Puerto Rico should have a different political status. If you agree, mark here XX.

If a majority of Puerto Ricans (and U.S. citizens who were born in Puerto Rico) vote to continue their current status, the bill authorizes Puerto Rico to hold a similar vote every eight years. If they vote for the second option, the bill authorizes the Puerto Rican government to hold a follow-up vote on how to change their status, including the option of becoming a U.S. state on equal footing with all other states. From the bill:

(c ) Procedure if Majority in First Plebiscite Favors Option 2- If a majority of the ballots in a plebiscite conducted pursuant to subsection (a) or (b) are cast in favor of Option 2, the Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct a plebiscite on the following 3 options:

(1) Independence: Puerto Rico should become fully independent from the United States. If you agree, mark here XX.

(2) Sovereignty in Association with the United States: Puerto Rico and the United States should form a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution. If you agree, mark here XX.

(3) Statehood: Puerto Rico should be admitted as a State of the Union. If you agree, mark here XX.

Since the U.S. Congress holds final say over the political status of Puerto Rico, theoretically they could choose to ignore the results of the plebiscite. But if the Puerto Rico Democracy Act is passed by both the House and Senate, it will be taken by Puerto Ricans as an implicit guarantee that the Congress will accept whatever result may come of the votes.

So what’s the political goal here? The Washington Times alleges it’s more about supporting Democrats than democracy:

Occasional plebiscites have been held asking island residents if they wanted statehood instead of their special status, but voters rejected change each time. The statehood option garnered just 46.3 percent and 46.5 percent of the vote in the last two attempts, the most recent in 1998. But because Puerto Rico leans heavily Democratic, congressional Democrats pine after the two new senators and perhaps six new House members who would be added to their caucus if statehood passed. The Democrats’ solution is ingenious – and underhanded. The new bill would call for a two-stage vote rather than a straightforward one.

Past elections have shown that commonwealth status is favored directly over statehood, directly against independence and directly against some sort of hybrid arrangement. Yet among all four options, commonwealth support appears to enjoy only a strong plurality, but maybe not an absolute majority. Presto: The Democrats’ scheme is to first hold a vote with just two options: commonwealth on one side, anything else on the other. If supporters of all three other options ban together, they might vote to rule out the commonwealth without knowing what would replace it.

Only if and when that first vote succeeds would a second vote be held to determine which of the other three options would apply – with commonwealth status off the table.

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