Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, and Island residents have been U.S. citizens since 1917. For the first time in history, on November 3rd, 2020, as part of the general election, the people of Puerto Rico will vote on the territory’s admission as a state of the Union with a simple “YES or NO” question.
This vote comes on the heels of two other plebiscites held in 2012 and 2017, where a majority of voters rejected the current territory status and more voters favored statehood than any non-territory option. Statehood opponents have claimed that the results were questionable because of their boycott of the vote through blank ballots in 2012 and low voter participation rate in 2017. Although in a democracy only the votes of those who participate in an election and choose a valid option can ever really count, Congress has hesitated to act on those prior results. This has made clear that for Congress to take action on resolving Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status, they need to know definitively that a majority of voters support a non-territorial alternative. Since statehood is the non-territorial alternative with the most support, asking this simple statehood YES/NO question is essential to show if an unquestionable majority support it.
How is this vote different from previous plebiscites?
Although island residents have been asked multiple times in the past to vote on the island’s future political status options, the question of statehood has never been asked in such a simple, direct and immediate way as it is now:
“Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?”
This straightforward format allows everyone who opposes statehood for any reason (i.e. they favor keeping the territory, want independence, etc.) to vote “NO,” and it allows everyone who believes in full voting rights and equality as U.S. citizens to vote “YES” to statehood. Asking if voters want statehood immediately will also show Congress the urgency of taking action if “YES” wins.
Does this vote matter even though it is “non-binding”? Is there any precedent?
Yes. Alaska and Hawaii also confronted delays in getting Congress to respond to their calls for self-government and self-determination when they were territories seeking statehood. To address that, both of the territories voted in locally sponsored “non-binding” plebiscites expressing support for statehood. Those locally sponsored votes generated necessary pressure for Congress to pass their statehood admission bills, which required them to vote one final time before becoming a state. In both cases support for statehood grew significantly between the territory’s first locally sponsored “non-binding” statehood vote (58% in 1946 for Alaska & 67% in 1940 for Hawaii) and their federally “binding” final vote after Congress enacted admission legislation (83% in 1958 for Alaska and 94% in 1959 for Hawaii).
Does the plebiscite have support in Washington?
Yes. To ensure that Congress listens to this vote and acts on the will of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, a bi-partisan group of House members led by Rep. Darren Soto and Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon introduced H.Res.1113, a resolution calling for Congress to take action on the results of the plebiscite. The resolution has 23 cosponsors. Many members are expressing support for the plebiscite and for Puerto Rico statehood including Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Donna Shalala, Rep. José Serrano and many others.
Could low voter participation rates or boycotts undermine the validity of the results, as in 2017 or 2012?
No. This plebiscite is being held concurrent with the general election, so the voter participation rate is expected to be vastly higher than in the 2017 plebiscite which obtained 23% participation, a rate that is normal for election events scheduled outside a general election. No registered political party in Puerto Rico has called for a boycott of this plebiscite. In fact, all political parties are actively campaigning for either the “YES” (New Progressive Party) or the “NO” (Popular Democratic Party and Puerto Rico Independence Party) options, and a new party, Citizens Victory Movement, has some of its candidates campaigning for “YES” and others for “NO”.
Is it true that because US DOJ did not fund the plebiscite, it is not valid?
No. Congress has made clear in federal statute that Puerto Rico’s right to determine its future political status can be exercised with or without the use of a federal appropriation that requires U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approval.
Exercising this right, Puerto Rico’s elected government, which was elected to seek statehood, enacted a law on May 16, 2020 providing for the “Yes” or “No” vote on statehood. Additionally, history shows us that when both Alaska and Hawaii voted in locally sponsored plebiscites that were not federally approved, and expressed support for statehood, those results helped pressure Congress to eventually pass their statehood admission bills.
Has the plebiscite been challenged in court? And if so, what was the result?
Yes. In a decision by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court in the case of Vega Ramos v. PR State Elections Commission, the Court found that the statehood “YES” or “NO” plebiscite is a Constitutionally valid and non-discriminatory exercise of the right of self- determination of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. In the Court’s words, “it permits all Puerto Ricans, on equal footing, to participate and express themselves in favor or against the ratification and implementation of the status option that was favored in the plebiscites celebrated in 2012 and 2017.”