What happens now after the Puerto Rico plebiscite
The results of the plebiscite held in Puerto Rico on June 11 are in. More than half a million votes were cast for statehood, while only 7,600 voted free association/independence, and just 6,700 for the current territorial status. Unlike in past elections, this vote has a very clear majority in favor of statehood, however that doesn’t mean there isn’t skepticism around the validity of the vote. So what happens now after the Puerto Rico plebiscite?
After a plebiscite occurs, the governor of the territory legally must write a letter to Washington D.C. containing the results of the plebiscite. After that occurs, it is up to the governor and his administration to act on the results. Governor Ricardo Rosselló has already pledged to take the result to Washington and create a commission to ensure that Congress will validate the results of the votes and take the necessary steps towards Puerto Rican statehood.
Although there is a clear majority in favor of statehood among those who voted, many think this will not be enough for the results of the plebiscite to be considered as representing the political will of Puerto Ricans. Firstly, only 23% of Puerto Ricans voted, out of 2.2 million possible eligible voters. The abysmal turnout is partially caused by boycotts of the referendum organized by the two main opposition parties. Puerto Rican elections usually have a voter turnout rate of around 80%, which calls into question how accurately this election represents the wishes of the general public.
Not long before the plebiscite, the Department of Justice (DOJ) felt it needed to remind Puerto Rico that it still had not approved the language of the ballot. Puerto Rico was promised funding for this plebiscite if it adhered to a set of rules set up by the DOJ to ensure that the outcome of the ballot would be legally applicable according the laws of the United States. Governor Rosselló submitted the ballot for approval, but it was rejected by the DOJ in April. The ballot was changed accordingly, but the changes never received approval by the DOJ. According to the specifications, the ballot language must have received approval at least 45 days prior to the plebiscite. The DOJ requested more time to review the new language and asked for the postponement of the plebiscite. However, this did not happen, and the DOJ never approved the language, meaning the Puerto Rican government will not be receiving federal funding for the vote. Although technically the DOJ does not have to grant approval of the language of the plebiscite for the results to be acted upon, many are worried that because the ballot was not approved, and voter turnout was so low, that Congress and the DOJ will not accept the results of the plebiscite.
Besides Governor Rosselló needing to announce the results of the plebiscite, there are more steps in the political and legal process of becoming a state. Congress would need to pass a statute outlining the process of transitioning to statehood. However, if Congress doesn’t pass the statute, the procedure stops there and Puerto Rico’s status remains the same.
Even if Congress okays the results of the ballot and has qualms about the low voter turnout, what else has to happen in order for Puerto Rico to become a state? The answer isn’t as clear as you might think. The constitution of the United States gives Congress the power to decide over questions of statehood: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States…” — U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2. Congress usually requires that territories wishing to be states have a population above a certain marker, and to have provided evidence that a majority of voters favor statehood (ie Puerto Rico’s plebiscite). The usual process takes the form of several steps after the territory in question holds a referendum. The second step is for the territory to petition Congress for statehood, as Governor Rosselló has already pledged to do. Then, the territory must adopt a form of government and a constitution which comply with the US constitution. In the case of Puerto Rico, this step could be considered as having been completed in the early 1950’s. After that, Congress, both the Senate and the House, must pass a joint resolution accepting the territory as a new state. The resolution requires only a simple majority vote to pass. Finally, the President of the United States is required to sign the joint resolution, allowing the territory to be recognized as a state.
While the process seems simple enough, many Puerto Ricans doubt that the results will be given much attention in Congress. They are worried that the boycotts and low voter turnout will affect Congress’s views on its validity. Furthermore, many doubt that the Trump administration cares at all about Puerto Rico or its election. Further still, many are nervous that Puerto Rico’s high poverty and debt will make it a poor candidate for statehood and that Congress will potentially reject it for these reasons.