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Puerto Rico votes on statehood – fifth time’s the charm?

Puerto Rican citizen gestures during political rally in 2012. AP/Ricardo Arduengo

On June 11, Puerto Ricans will have an opportunity to vote in a nonbinding plebiscite to determine Puerto Rico’s political status.

Local voters will choose among three options: statehood, independence or territorial autonomy – or keeping the status quo.

There are two main parties opposing statehood: the Popular Democratic Party, the main political party advocating for territorial autonomy or the commonwealth status; and the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

Both political parties are actively boycotting the plebiscite and campaigning against the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which controls the executive and legislative branches of government. Because these parties are not planning to participate in Sunday’s plebiscite, it is likely that the pro-statehood party will receive a majority of the votes in the plebiscite.

Advocates of statehood say it would resolve the island’s fiscal crisis. Statehood would grant Puerto Rico access to parity in federal funds for social programs like Medicaid and public housing subsidies, important programs for a place where about 45 percent of its people are living in poverty.

But, are Americans ready to add a 51st star to their flag?

Puerto Rico’s territorial status

The United States annexed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Soon after, U.S. law and policymakers invented a new territorial status to govern Puerto Rico and the other annexed Spanish territories. Also known as an “unincorporated territory,” the new territorial status enabled the U.S. government to selectively govern Puerto Rico as a foreign possession in a domestic or constitutional manner. In other words, depending on the issue, the U.S. government could selectively treat Puerto Rico as a state of the United States, as an autonomous territory or as a foreign country.

Since then, the U.S. and Puerto Rico have struggled to see eye to eye on the territory’s status.

As my research demonstrates, Congress has debated as many as 132 political status and plebiscite bills for Puerto Rico since 1898. Between 1898 and 1952, Congress has progressively enacted laws granting Puerto Ricans more administrative control over local affairs. However, Congress has never gone so far as to change Puerto Rico’s unincorporated territorial status. More importantly, for more than a century, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that unincorporated territories are not meant to become states of the Union. The court has also affirmed the principle that Congress has the power to enact legislation for Puerto Rico that treats the island as a separate and unequal territorial possession.

For example, in Harris v. Santiago Rosario (1980), the Supreme Court found that because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, Congress can grant less federal assistance to U.S. citizens living there. In 2016, Congress also created a Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico comprising seven unelected officials with the power to manage the island’s economic affairs and the debt crisis. The board’s powers are so wide-ranging that it can essentially veto any law related to the budget enacted by the local legislature.

Plebiscites past

A woman casts her vote in San Juan during 2012 election. REUTERS/Ana Martinez

In Puerto Rico, the local legislature has conducted four nonbinding status plebiscites. In 1967, Puerto Ricans, who were already U.S. citizens, voted to keep their territorial autonomy (60 percent), rejecting the statehood (39 percent) and independence (less than 1 percent) options.

In a second plebiscite held in 1993, Puerto Ricans again affirmed the status quo (49 percent) over statehood (46 percent) and independence (4 percent).

In a third plebiscite held in 1998, the Popular Democratic Party organized a boycott of the plebiscite. With the support of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court, the commonwealth party was able to amend the ballot to add a “none of the above” option. As a result, 50 percent of voters chose “none of the above” in protest. Only 47 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood and 2.5 percent for independence.

In 2012, the Puerto Rican legislature conducted a fourth plebiscite. It was divided into two questions, which some people argue intentionally diluted support for territorial autonomy.

The first question asked whether Puerto Rico should maintain its commonwealth or territorial status. A majority of Puerto Ricans (54 percent) voted no.

The second question gave Puerto Ricans a choice among several status options, including statehood, a sovereign free associated republic and independence, but excluded the status quo. This exclusion prompted upwards of 500,000 voters to simply skip this question on the ballot as a form of protest. The majority (61 percent) of Puerto Ricans who voted on the second question picked statehood. However, if you include the voters who skipped the question, the percentage of those who chose this option drops to only 45 percent.

This time around

This year’s initial ballot excluded the option to vote for the status quo. However, in April 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the governor of Puerto Rico demanding that the plebiscite include this option. The Puerto Rican government has since incorporated it into the ballot. The modification and language of the new ballot, in turn, prompted the two main anti-statehood parties to call for a boycott of the vote.

Given the lack of support from these political parties, most analysts expect that the statehood option will receive a majority of the votes.

If their predictions prove correct, then what?

Putting aside the constitutional debates, the likely answer is not much.

Like any state, Puerto Rico would be entitled to two senators. Based on the 2010 census count, Puerto Rico, which has a similar population size as Connecticut, would be reapportioned five representatives. In order to comply with the current apportionment rules of the House, Texas, California, Florida, Washington and Minnesota, states with larger populations, would likely each have to give a seat to Puerto Rico. More importantly, data show most Puerto Ricans vote Democratic. It does not take a political scientist to know that the Republican-controlled Congress would not be inclined to give the Democrats seven seats.

Finally, available national surveys demonstrate that most Americans do not know much about the political status of Puerto Ricans, and only 40 percent would support statehood for the island. Until Americans are willing to reimagine and redraw the nation’s boundaries, Puerto Rico will remain a disembodied member in the shade of the U.S. empire.

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