U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that the Department of Justice will not approve the ballot for Puerto Rico’s June 11 status vote. Governor Rossello says the plebiscite will take place anyway, and that Puerto Rico’s government is talking with the Department of Justice.
The new referendum, scheduled for June 11, 2017, was to be the first federally-sponsored status vote in Puerto Rico. $2.5 million has been set aside to hold the referendum and to provide educational materials to make sure that the voters of Puerto Rico fully understand the options on the ballot. The Consolidated Appropriations Act phrased it like this:
$2,500,000 is for objective, nonpartisan voter education about, and a plebiscite on, options that would resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status, which shall be provided to the State Elections Commission of Puerto Rico.
The funds will be made available to Puerto Rico only if the options on the ballot are approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The options on the draft ballot released last month are these:
- Independence/Free Association
These are the non-territorial options available under the U.S. Constitution. However, there has been agitation to include the current territorial option on the ballot, including a letter from eight U.S. senators to Sessions. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner and other leaders of the community responded with letters of their own.
“In the Puerto Rico status context,” Gonzalez-Colon wrote, “‘Commonwealth’ has two different meanings. One is a reference to the islands’ current status. This status is territory… Commonwealth is also used in Puerto Rico to refer to various proposals of the local Popular Democratic Party or some of its leaders for an unprecedented governing arrangement. These proposals have been made since the 1950s and have been ultimately rejected by the Justice Department, the Executive branch as a whole, and in Congress as impossible for constitutional and other reasons.”
The argument in favor of offering a third alternative to the actual viable alternatives is that the “commonwealth” party believes that many people want to continue under the current territorial status. Failing to give these people the option to vote, party leaders say, would “disenfranchise” them. But the object of the vote is not to leave Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory, without sovereignty and in a fiscal crisis that show no signs of improving. The object is to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status by choosing a permanent status option.
Statehood is one of those options. Independence is the other. Being a territory is always temporary. It is a way station on the road to statehood. Puerto Rico has been in this position for too long.
Nonetheless, the option to continue as a territory will be added to the ballot, according to Puerto Rican government officials.
Without DOJ approval, Puerto Rico will not receive the $2.5 million to pay for the plebiscite. There is also concern that the lack of DOJ approval will provide an excuse for Congress to fail to take action on the vote, regardless of how it turns out.