What’s a Plebiscite?

A lot of the news about Puerto Rico’s status right now has to do with the plebiscite — was the status question settled by the last plebiscite, will Congress support the upcoming plebiscite, will the 2020 plebiscite be the last one?

But what’s a plebiscite?

The word comes from the Latin plebis scitum, a law decided by the people. So a plebiscite is a vote that lets people decide not who should represent them, but what the answer should be to a certain question.

In Puerto Rico, the question is what status Puerto Rico should have. Puerto Rico is currently a territory, but there are serious problems caused by this status. Many presidents of the United States, including Barack Obama, have said that they will accept the will of the people of Puerto Rico. Plebiscites are intended to determine the will of the people.

Puerto Rico has had several plebiscites. Sometimes the people have voted for “enhanced commonwealth” which has not been clearly defined, and the U.S. Congress and the Department of Justice have rejected the option. In 2012 and 2017, the people of Puerto Rico voted for statehood. However, Congress did not take action on either of those votes.

So Puerto Rico has voted repeatedly in hopes of resolving the question of Puerto Rico’s status, and no change has taken place.

Federal funding

In 2014, a law was passed which provides funding for a Federally sponsored plebiscite. It is not yet certain whether the 2020 vote will be approved under this law. If it is, it will be different in two ways:

  • The U.S. government is funding and sponsoring the vote, with the stated goal of resolving the status of Puerto Rico.
  • Only the options which can be accepted by Congress — the status options possible under the U.S. constitution — will be included (as approved by the Department of Justice).

Since the options must all be approved by the Department of Justice, the Puerto Rican people will not end up voting for a status that cannot be accepted by Congress.

As Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee with jurisdiction, said after the 1993 plebiscite, “The people were presented a mythical commonwealth option which proposed significant changes to the current relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States… It is ridiculous to suggest that the United States would ever agree to a commonwealth with permanent union between Puerto Rico and the United States.  Only by being incorporated into the body politic of the United States can Puerto Rico be considered to be in permanent union.”

Yes or no vote

Whether the upcoming referendum is funded and approved by the federal government or not, it will be different from all the previous plebiscites in that it will be a yes/no vote on statehood. This is the same format used by Alaska and Hawaii when they held their status votes before becoming states in the 20th century.

Everyone who wants statehood can vote yes. Anyone who does not want statehood can vote no. If the voters choose statehood again, Congress will still have to vote to admit Puerto Rico.

If voters do not favor statehood, Puerto Rico will continue to be an unincorporated territory of the United States.

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