PUERTO RICO STATEHOOD COMMITTEE CALLS ON U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTIC
Igualdad, a Puerto Rico political Action Committee advocating for statehood, made an appeal to the Attorney General of the United States to review the definitions included in the ballot to be utilized in a Puerto Rico plebiscite regarding its political status. This is a most fitting approach since The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal 2014 (PL 113-76) provides that the Attorney General’s review assures that: (i) the alternatives are constitutionally valid; (ii) that they are in accordance to the laws and public policy of the United States; and (iii) that they finally resolve the status problem.
In a letter signed by Annabel Guillén, president of Igualdad, she called on the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to review the ballot to be utilized in the November 3, 2020 plebiscite authorized by the U.S. territory’s “Act to Define Puerto Rico’s Ultimate Political Status” (Act 51-2020) signed into law by the Governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced, on March 16, 2020.
Under that act, the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission recognized the Igualdad Committee as one of two representing the Statehood Yes option, as it has done in every political status vote held on 2012 and 2017. It is in this capacity that Igualdad addresses the Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We are approaching the most consequential event in our political history; and we seek to arrive at the resolution of the status problem with the cooperation of the Executive and Legislative branches of the United States,” said Guillen.
In addressing their request to the Attorney General, the letter summarized many landmarks, pronouncements and resolutions supporting the end of the over a century-old colonial status of the island. Some notable examples follow:
The 2007 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status included among its recommendations that “if the people of Puerto Rico elect to pursue a permanent non-territorial status, Congress should provide for an additional plebiscite to allow the people of Puerto Rico to choose between one of the permanent non-territorial options permitted by the Constitution: statehood or independence”.
The 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status reiterated the long-held policy of the Federal Executive branch that Puerto Rico should determine for itself the future status of the island, and “that the President and Congress should support any fair, transparent and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico”.
In the local status plebiscite held in 2012, there were two questions. The first question asked about support for the existing territorial status, which 54% of the voters rejected. The second question contained all constitutional valid alternatives and statehood obtained 61% of the voters’ approval. Recognizing the importance of this result, Congress legislated for a plebiscite with a no-date federal appropriation in The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal 2014 (PL 113-76).
In the summer of 2017 another local status plebiscite was held. Attempts were made to obtain the Attorney General’s approval of the ballot. Then Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente informed then Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló that the Department of Justice would not be endorsing the plebiscite ballot between statehood and free association/independence because it excluded the territorial option. As a matter of fact, the ballot was immediately amended to include the territorial option, as recommended by the Deputy Attorney General, and 97% of the voters favored statehood.
Opponents of statehood have argued that the low 22% voter turnout is indicative of not being representative of the will of the people of Puerto Rico. Actually, 32% of voters residing in Puerto Rico turned out to vote. The difference is that less than a year before the plebiscite, a federal district court judge, Hon. Carmen Consuelo Vargas, validated a long-standing provision of our territorial Electoral Code that removed voters from the active voter roll when they did not vote in a general election. By expanding the active registered voters’ list, the number of participating voters represents a lower percentage in terms of official voter turnout. The immense majority of the voters added to the list are probably domiciled in a state and many have voted numerous times in another jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the argument has, unfortunately, found echo in certain sectors within the Federal government.
The letter stressed that it is precisely to address this century-old political logjam that the Puerto Rico Legislature passed the Act to Define Puerto Rico’s Ultimate Political Status which was signed into law on May 16th, 2020. Under this law, the ballot will be designed by the State Election Commission, and the options to be included are:
“Just as in the plebiscites held in Alaska and Hawaii, the last two territories annexed as states of the Union, in this Puerto Rico plebiscite, there shall be a single ballot with the following question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State?” The answer options printed on the ballot shall be: Statehood “Yes” or “No.” Voters may only vote for one (1) of these options printed on the ballot.”
For at least the past three election cycles, the territorial party has argued for an “Enhanced Commonwealth” option. Both Department of Justice memoranda and Presidential Task Force Reports have discarded such an alternative as unconstitutional.
Some have argued that the ballot needs to include the territorial alternative. As reflected in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites, the people of Puerto Rico have rejected continued territorial status. It behooves the Department of Justice to review the language of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal 2014, which expressly states that the approved plebiscite must resolve the status problem. Needless to say, continued territorial status—which as a matter of political realities is the default position in case nothing occurs—does not resolve the status problem.
In this context, it is worth noting the recent explanatory statement included by the House Appropriations Committee regarding the plebiscite under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, which declared: “The Committee believes that to accomplish this goal, the current territorial/Commonwealth status should be excluded from any future plebiscite, since it fails to address key inequities”.
As is known, the last few years have been particularly hard on Puerto Rico. Since 2017 Puerto Rico’s social, political economic and demographic landscape has suffered substantial changes. Hurricane Irma and María devastated the island’s infrastructure. Similarly, the political turmoil of the summer of 2019, which resulted in the resignation of sitting elected governor, the series of earthquakes since December 28, 2019, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic have caused added hardship. To these predicaments we must add the government’s fiscal precariousness which required the 2016 approval of PROMESA and the creation of a Fiscal Oversight and Management Board.
In this context it should be recalled that both recent White House Task Force Reports have stated that our current territorial status constitutes a hindrance to our economic development.
In closing, Ms. Guillén indicated: “This latest plebiscite is a necessary and urgent step in the ongoing efforts to move Puerto Rico’s political, economic and social development forward. We trust and expect that the Department of Justice will give thoughtful consideration to this matter and assist us in the efforts of assuring that three million Americans are able to exercise their political rights in a free and democratic process under the aegis of the Constitution, the law and public policy of the United States of America, facing exactly the same ballot question and voting on the same two options that every other American in all the admitted states that consulted their people