One year ago today, voters in Puerto Rico chose statehood for the second time in a status referendum. The official results:
- Statehood: 97%
- Independence and Free Association: 1.5%
- Territorial status: 1.3%
Here are some things you should know about that vote.
Anti-statehood forces called a boycott of the vote
Turnout for the vote was low: about 23% of those who voted in 2008, 33% of all active voters. However, low turnout has never invalidated a vote in the U.S. Just over half of registered voters in the U.S. typically turn out for presidential elections, and fewer than 40% usually vote in midterm elections.
518,199 people cast their votes. Half a million people chose statehood. This is not a handful of voters.
Anti-statehood parties called for a boycott of the vote. Obviously, they would not have asked for a boycott if they believed they could win. The plan was to discredit the vote by claiming that all non-voters would have voted against statehood. This trick worked surprisingly well after the 2012 vote. But, according to El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, only 7% of those they surveyed said that they had boycotted the vote. Others said that they didn’t bother to vote because it was obvious that statehood would win, that Congress hadn’t officially approved the plebiscite, or that they simply hadn’t gotten around to it.
It doesn’t matter. Voters had been warned ahead of time that their votes wouldn’t count if they didn’t actually show up and mark their ballots.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida said it clearly: “The ballot was fair and those who voted overwhelmingly chose statehood. In our democracy, only those who show up to vote get counted.”
The Department of Justice didn’t approve the ballot
The first ballot prepared for the vote included only statehood and independence. 54% of voters in 2012 had voted against the current territorial status. What’s more, keeping the current territorial status doesn’t resolve the status question, because both statehood and independence would continue to be options.
However, the DOJ wanted to include the territorial option because it is in fact possible for Puerto Rico to continue as an unincorporated territory indefinitely.
They also wanted to make sure that it was clear that a vote for Free Association would be a vote for independence, not for a mythical “enhanced commonwealth.”
Finally, the DOJ objected to the claim that statehood would be the only option that would allow Puerto Ricans to retain their U.S. citizenship. The territorial option, which they insisted should be included, also includes citizenship.
The changes were made very quickly, but the DOJ did not respond before the scheduled date for the referendum.
Enchanced commonwealth was never an option
The “commonwealth” party has claimed that leaving their fantasy option off the ballot disenfranchises those voters who might want that. This is as reasonable as saying that leaving becoming a colony of Spain off the ballot disenfranchises voters. The United States government has repeatedly said that “enhanced commonwealth” is not a viable option. When that option won in a previous plebiscite, Congress expressed regret that Puerto Rico’s voters had been duped into voting for it.
The only viable options for Puerto Rico’s status under the U.S. Constitution are those that were on the ballot.
Opponents of statehood cannot win a plebiscite. They try instead to discredit the results.
Does the 2017 plebiscite matter?
In a sense, the referendum vote doesn’t make a difference to Puerto Rico’s status. A plebiscite is a non-binding vote intended to show the will of the people. The territory of Alabama became a state without a referendum, and Congress could admit Puerto Rico without a vote.
But members of the federal government, including President Trump, have repeatedly said that they will support the will of the people of Puerto Rico. The voters have chosen statehood twice. The territory’s elected leaders have officially requested statehood. It is time for action.