In 2014 the Republican-controlled Congress passed a bipartisan bill signed by President Obama, providing $2.5 million to fund the first federally sponsored referendum in Puerto Rico on the future political status of our nation’s last large and populous U.S. territory. That act (U.S. Public Law 113-73) might not have stood out amid the politics of the moment, but it constituted the official response by Washington to a 2012 referendum sponsored by the territorial government in Puerto Rico.
Right now, Washington’s immediate focus is on Puerto Rico’s recovery from a public agency debt crisis. But historical forces were set in motion by that 2012 referendum, in which a strong majority voted for statehood instead of the current territorial status. The Certified Official Results of the 2012 Plebiscite show a clear result.
Certified Official Results of the 2012 Plebiscite:
Because of local politics surrounding the future political status issue, the current local government leaders in the territory have not conducted the vote authorized by Congress in 2014. The new leadership elected this year will have to call for the referendum authorized by Congress. The 2014 federal enabling act for the status vote requires any option in the ballot to be certified as legally valid by the U.S. Attorney General.
The lesson of history is that short-term political and economic issues in U.S. territories can delay transition to statehood or nationhood, but once the people have chosen a future status forces are set in motion that lead to admission to the union or to independence. The nation’s attention may be focused on Puerto Rico’s current fiscal meltdown, but several territories became states under far more difficult circumstances.
So here are the facts about the 2012 vote in Puerto Rico that led Congress and the White House in 2014 quietly to begin the transition from territorial status to statehood or nationhood, based on a federally sponsored referendum to be held in 2017:
1. The population of Puerto Rico is 3.5 million. Since 1917 by act of Congress all persons born in Puerto Rico have birthright U.S. citizenship, and under both federal and local election laws are eligible to vote at age 18. On November 6, 2012, 1.8 million out of 2.4 registered voters in Puerto Rico cast ballots in a political status referendum, representing participation in the vote by 78% of all registered voters.
2. The 2012 referendum was sponsored and funded by the constitutional government of Puerto Rico, and was a public act consistent with the federal statute that created and vested legal authority in the constitutional government of the territory. The referendum was conducted in an orderly manner without incidents, abuses, irregularities or disruptions that called into question the results of the voting, as duly certified in an open and public manner by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission.
3. The two part ballot format was based on a political status self-determination ballot template accepted by the Reagan Administration, U.S. Congress and U.N. when employed in 1982 and 1983 for status votes in the U.S. governed territories under United Nations Trusteeship for the Pacific Islands. The ballot language in the 2012 referendum was consistent with the definition of status option confirmed in the record before the U.S. Congress as well as White House reports by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Political Status.
4. In the referendum, 54% percent of U.S. citizens casting votes on the first ballot question voted to end the current political status of the territory. On the second question 61% voted for statehood. The total number of votes cast for statehood on the second ballot question was greater than the votes cast to continue the current status on the first question. This means that the current status lost an up and down vote on the first question and lost to statehood in the overall voting.
5. There were large numbers of blank and invalid ballots cast on both questions in 2012. Anti-statehood leaders argued that ballots left blank on the second question should be counted against statehood. There is no legal or democratic basis in the law authorizing the referendum or ballot instructions for attributing any meaning to blank ballots. The U.S. Department of Justice, Congress, U.S. federal courts and the U.N. General Assembly accepted the results of the 1983 political status vote in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, in which it was certified that more than 75% of voters answered the first ballot question but declined to cast a vote on a second ballot question. Blank ballots were not counted in status referendums in U.S. territories that became states.
6. The 2012 vote in Puerto Rico was a more definitive and authoritative act of democratic self-determination than the statehood votes sponsored by territorial governments and Congress in several territories that became states. Several states were admitted by petition without a referendum. Colorado and Nebraska were admitted even though statehood lost the only votes held in those territories.
Based on the forgoing, it is incontrovertible that the 2012 status vote in Puerto Rico was a legally valid act of self-determination conducted within the legal framework of U.S. federal law authoring the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to act through a locally adopted constitution approved by Congress to express their political will regarding local matters within the context of the territory’s relations with the federal government.
There are multiple examples in which Congress has sponsored federally recognized status votes to confirm results of local acts of self-determination conducted in territories that later became states.
Historically, every large and populous territory populated by U.S. citizens has been admitted to the union once the majority of citizens in the territory has democratically petitioned in favor of union, either in a referendum, local territorial legislature resolutions or by elected territorial leadership.