Self-Determination for Puerto Rico: The Decision Is Made

In 2012, a status referendum asked Puerto Rico voters two questions:

  • Were they happy with the current territorial status? 54% said no.
  • Of the viable options for status, which one would they prefer: statehood, independence, or continuing as a territory? 61% chose statehood.

In 2017, 97% of voters in another status referendum chose statehood.

In 2018, the elected government of Puerto Rico officially requested statehood.

Puerto Rico clearly chose statehood.

Is everyone happy with this result?

No. In a democracy, voters don’t always agree. There were boycotts of the status votes — but we all know that nobody boycotts a vote they can win. Those who favor independence, which has never gotten more than 5% of the vote, took the opportunity to claim that they have a mandate. This is an absurd claim. It is not simply that independence has never had a majority — Independence has never gotten as many voters as the Green Party gets in U.S. presidential elections. Would anyone believe the Green Party if they claimed that they won the 2016 presidential election? Then we should not believe that the 97% of voters who chose statehood in 2017 were actually outnumbered by voters for Independence.

Those who want an “enhanced commonwealth” have not been able to define their option. The federal government, however, has rejected the idea many times. The Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch have all confirmed that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, subject to the Territory Clause of the Constitution. “Enhanced commonwealth” is a nonstarter. If the majority of people in Puerto Rico want to keep the current status, they would have to vote to continue to be an unincorporated territory. Congress will not take action on a vote for “enhanced commonwealth” because it is not a viable option under the U.S. Constitution.

But it is also true that the majority did not vote for the territory status option or for “enhanced commonwealth.” The commonwealth supporters want to believe that every person who did not vote in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites supported “enhanced commonwealth,” just as the Independence Party wants to claim all those non-voters. That’s a fantasy. There is no way to determine what any of the non-voters wanted. Some might have wanted to stay home and take a nap.

The reason that non-votes don’t count is that they can’t be counted. They can only be imagined. Therefore, decisions are always based on the actual votes.

Does it matter?

The results of elections matter. Plebiscites, votes that just ask for the opinions of the people, are not binding. They still matter, though, because they show the will of the people.

Polls in Puerto Rico and in the states consistently show that statehood is the most popular option.

Yet we still see discussions that imply that the three options under the U.S. Constitution are all equal.

Are the three status options equal?

Obviously, they are not. Independence is not an option for Puerto Rico because people living in Puerto Rico clearly do not want it. 2% to 5% of voters support independence. This is such a small proportion that the only way Puerto Rico could become an independent nation is if Congress forces the Island to become independent against her will.

“Enhanced commonwealth” is not an option for Puerto Rico because the U.S. government has rejected it. The U.S. Congress has the power to determine Puerto Rico’s status, and they have said repeatedly that they will not — and can not — sit down with the “commonwealth” party and make up some new type of government and relationship. Puerto Rico cannot create this “Fantasy Island” option on her own. The reality of the “commonwealth” option is simply to continue as a territory of the United States.

Statehood is an option for Puerto Rico. 32 territories of the United States have already become states, and Puerto Rico can do the same. The majority of Puerto Ricans are not happy with the current status. The majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood. The majority of people in the states also favor statehood.

The decision has been made

There is really no point to continuing to talk about self-determination. The decision has been made. Now is the time for action.

Tell your legislators that you want statehood for Puerto Rico.

One Comment

Howard Hills

The most important data point in this discussion is that voter turnout in 2012 was over 78%.

The other critical fact is that boycott or no boycott, blank ballots on second question or no blank ballots, the number of votes cast for statehood on the second question was greater than the number of votes for the current status on the first question.

THAT is why the status quo party that opposes statehood and independence joined with the tiny Independence Party to boycott the 2017 election. The anti-statehood minority knew they were going to lose in 2017 because they had already lost in 2012.

In addition, the Department of Justice was in chaos in 2017 when it fumbled the ball and refused to certify the options on the ballot. The reasons given by the Office of Attorney General at the time were legally unsustainable.

PR held the vote anyway. Instead PR should have challenged the DOJ’s flawed legal justifications for refusing to certify the ballot.

It was no surprise only some statehood supporters showed up for the 2017 vote. Failure of DOJ to certify the ballot federal law requiring compatibility with the U.S. Constitution demoralized voters, which is why 23% turned out, the lowest in PR history, although higher than many major federal, state and local votes nationwide.

In its legally untenable statement DOJ garbled citizenship and sovereignty issues and demanded that the status quo which does not resolve the status of the territory in a manner compatible with the Constitution appear on the ballot.

Those in Washington who pretend the 2012 was not a definitive and decisive act of self-determination are either willfully ignorant, dishonest, or both. That vote was a more authoritative act of self-determination under U.S. and international law than the pro-statehood votes accepted by Congress for most of the 32 territories that became states.

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