Back in 2014, the federal government set aside $2.5 million to plan and undertake a status vote in Puerto Rico, with voter education so that all the options would be clear.
Department of Justice undersecretary Jeffrey Rosen sent a letter to the Puerto Rico government rejecting the planned 2020 referendum for this funding.
The terms of the 2014 funding
The $2.5 million is available to Puerto Rico only if the DOJ approves the ballot. In 2017, the DOJ made three significant objections.
First, they felt that the description of the Free Associated State option might make voters think that Free Association was the same as “enhanced commonwealth,” when really it was, in the words of the DOJ, “unencumbered independence.”
They also objected to the claim that statehood was the only option that guaranteed U.S. citizenship. Even though the Congressional Research service stated that Congress could not guarantee citizenship outside of statehood, because one Congress can’t limit the actions of a future Congress, the DOJ said that continuing as a territory offers U.S. citizenship.
The option of continuing as a territory was not originally on the 2017 ballot, since 54% of voters in 2012 rejected the idea of continuing as a territory. However, the DOJ insisted that the territorial status quo should be on the ballot in 2017. Unlike “enhanced commonwealth,” continuing to be an unincorporated territory is an option under the U.S. Constitution.
The ballot was changed to reflect these objections. However, the DOJ did not respond in time to the changes, and the 2014 funding was not used.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen has once again cited a lack of time. He stated in a letter to the Puerto Rico Elections Commission that there DOJ was not able to meet the June 30 deadline given in the 2014 law.
Rosen also said that the ballot, which consists of a yes/no vote on statehood for Puerto Rico, was problematic. He expressed concern that if DOJ released the funds, it could be interpreted as an endorsement of statehood. As in 2017, the DOJ wants continued territory status to be an option on the ballot.
Puerto Rico’s government has taken the position that the territory status, which was on both the 2012 and 2017 ballots, has already been rejected by those votes.
Rosen also wants to make sure that Puerto Rico voters understand that the November referendum would not automatically lead to statehood. A plebiscite is by its nature non-binding, and Congress will still have to vote for admission of Puerto Rico, even if voters have a clear majority “yes” vote in November.
Why is DOJ resisting the plebiscite?
Columnist Andres Cordova claims that this action on the part of the DOJ “is to keep the status question off the table so as not to upset their perceived political interests.”
Cordova continues, “Those that oppose statehood can vote no and can rest assured that if they prevail, they will be heard loud and clear by many in Congress. Those that favor statehood can vote yes, and should they prevail, they can begin the difficult task of pressuring Congress to act on its constitutional responsibilities.”
A status referendum is not a requirement for statehood, and Congress is not obligated to follow the will of the people, regardless of the outcome of the vote. However, Congress has been using the excuse that Puerto Rico can’t reach consensus on status for decades to explain its lack of action. Anti-statehood factions have relied on confusion over status votes to fuel that excuse. And the United States, supposedly committed to governing with the consent of the governed, still fails to take the steps needed to resolve the political status of Puerto Rico.