The controversy over the upcoming Puerto Rico status plebiscite, explained

by Apr 25, 2017Headlines, Status0 comments

In February the Governor of Puerto Rico signed a bill into law stating that on June 11, 2017 a plebiscite will be held for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico. The ballot will include two options- statehood or free associated state/independence. To understand the importance of this ballot, there are some questions that must be answered.


What is a plebiscite?

Plebiscites are votes that are cast by an entire population of a country, district, territory, etc, to determine the answer to a particular question. Plebiscites are often used as a way to determine the public “will”. This determination of public opinion is then often used to make concrete political steps in the direction of the public will. The plebiscite set to be held this year in Puerto Rico is to determine the political will of the constituents in regard to Puerto Rico’s status, should it become a state or should it seek independence from the US?


Has Puerto Rico had plebiscites in the past?

Yes. In fact, it has had several in the past that were also concerned with what its status should be in regards to its connection with the United States. These plebiscites occurred in 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012. The ‘67 and ‘93 plebiscites included three simple options, statehood, territorial status, or independence. Maintaining a territorial status (ie territory) won the first two plebiscites. The ‘98 plebiscite included a “None of the above” option which won, but meant that it was difficult to act definitively on the results of the ballot. The 2012 plebiscite’s results, where the status quo was rejected, and statehood was preferred by those who cast a vote, were not acted on by Congress.


Why wasn’t Puerto Rico’s 2012 Plebiscite definitive?

Basically, Congress did not act on them. The 2012 plebiscite seemed straightforward, but was not binding, and as a territory, Puerto Rico’s status is solely in the hands of Congress. In that vote, 54% rejected the current territorial status, and Statehood won with the support 61% of those who voted on the second question.

Concerns were voiced by the pro-territorial status Popular Democratic Party that the construction of the ballot favored the New Progressive Party which was pushing for statehood. The Popular Democratic Party asked its supporters to cast blank protest ballots. Their efforts were not in vain as 466,337 blank votes were cast.

Other political changes confused the process further. Alejandro García Padilla, a member of the party supporting the territorial status, was elected governor the same day of the plebiscite. It is up to the leading party to decide whether or not to act on the results of a plebiscite. Legally, all that is required is that the governor send a letter to Washington containing the results. Given that the party in power was pro-status quo, nothing happened. Even if they were to have lobbied for statehood in Washington against their parties affiliation, it is unlikely that the results would have been acted upon by Congress.

Instead of lobbying for statehood, Governor Garcia Padilla promised to lobby Washington for a new plebiscite to clear up the results of the 2012 ballot. The US Congress pledged $2.5 million in 2014 for a new plebiscite on the status of Puerto Rico.


What is unique about the 2017 plebiscite?

The 2017 plebiscite could be the first federally funded plebiscite. This has some important implications for the ballot. The money pledged by Congress is being used to sponsor a bipartisan voter education campaign, to avoid the confusions and controversies of previous ballots. The ballot choices also must be approved by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which means that only options that would be acceptable options under US law will be approved for the ballot.

This is an important distinction from previous ballots. It means that no matter which option is selected, the government of Puerto Rico can move to gain the approval of the US government to act on the decision. Previous ballots included options that, while representing the opinions of the population, would not necessarily have been approved by Congress. This time, all options would be viable under US law, meaning that if a clear majority of opinion is established, concrete actions can be taken towards achieving the political will of the citizens of Puerto Rico.


What is the controversy?

Governor Ricardo Rosselló sent the preliminary ballot, voter education materials, and expenditure plan to the DOJ for approval and the distribution of the promised funds. The response from the Department of Justice came as a shock, as they refused to approve the materials and grant the funds. In a letter to Governor Rosselló, Dana J. Boente, the Acting Deputy Attorney General, explained that the DOJ found that the ballot is not compatible with the laws of the US constitution and do not guarantee that the will of the Puerto Rican people can be “ascertained in a way that provides a clear result.”

The letter goes on to explain that the DOJ believes that the results cannot be obtained objectively because the ballot leaves off the option to remain a territory of the US. They hold that the controversy surrounding the 2012 plebiscite creates a sufficient amount of doubt to definitively say that Puerto Ricans reject territorial status. It also notes that 5 years represents a long time, and during the 5 years there have been many changes in the US and Puerto Rico politically and financially and that it is irresponsible to assume the 2012 plebiscite still accurately reflects the current beliefs of the public.

It also calls into question the particular wording of the proposed ballot as well. It describes problems with the descriptions of the two options. For statehood, the DOJ calls into question the fact that in the description it claims that this option is the only way to gain citizenship by birth to the United States. The DOJ thinks that this is unclear as, currently under territorial status, Puerto Ricans have rights to citizenship at birth. The DOJ is correct, however, in the context of the ballot where the two options are statehood or independence, statehood is the only option of the two that could guarantee citizenship. It is clear with this particular editorial statement that the DOJ is pushing the territorial option on the citizens of Puerto Rico. The letter also criticizes the description of the “Free Association” option, which it claims does not make it clear that this option represents total independance, and may be confusing to voters, and that it describes the status of citizenship in a nebulous way.

Many have been referring to the rejection of funds as a colonial interference. Many Puerto Rican political leaders, including Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, have expressed unhappiness, shock, and disagreement with the letter. Governor Rosselló tweeted about his disappointment with the decision of the DOJ. He said it was “unacceptable” for the colonizer to interfere. In a later tweet, however, he proposed modifying the ballot to the DOJ’s specifications. On April 19th, the legislative assembly of Puerto Rico voted to amend the ballot and add “current territorial status” as a third option. The piece of legislation, Public Law 427, also changed the language of the ballot in order to reflect the criticisms made by the DOJ, hoping to have the new ballot submitted and approved, so the federal funds can be used.