Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, spoke at a hearing on voting rights in the territories held by the Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Elections on Tuesday.
“The right to vote, to be equally represented in the governments that make one’s laws and to have the elections conducted fairly are the most fundamental and essential elements of democracy,” said González-Colón. “We in the territories, live in jurisdictions that constitutionally cannot have votes in the government that dictates our national laws and that can — and sometimes does — intervene in the local laws.”
“Congress can delegate the exercise of self-government to the territories… [but] it can take back the self government it has delegated,” she pointed out, referring to the PROMESA Board.
The territorial clause
The Resident Commissioner explained that Congress has plenary power — complete power — under the U.S. Constitution. As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, actions taken by Congress can be undone by Congress.
“The United States is history’s greatest democracy,” she said, “but it has never been a perfect democracy.”
Gonzalez-Colon acknowledged that statehood would give Puerto Rico equal rights with the current 50 states under the law. Independence, with or without free association, would also remove Puerto Rico from the plenary power of Congress, but that step could end the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
“This will mean the end of US citizenship in one way or another,” she said.
And remaining a territory cannot lead to equal rights for the territories, or for equal treatment in federal programs. “Even when we are granted equal treatment,” she reminded her listeners, “it can be taken away.”
She pointed out that court cases attempting to provide voting rights for the territories have failed. Because it is based on the Constitution, the inequality of territories cannot be repaired by the courts.
Voting with their feet
More than 5 million Puerto Ricans have chosen statehood by moving to a state.
“We should not have to move to an existing state for democracy or equality,” Gonzalez-Colon said. She reminded the committee that Puerto Rico voted for statehood and has officially requested statehood, and that there is in fact an admissions act before Congress.
“Puerto Rico wants the territory to become a state of the Union,” the Resident Commissioner said. “It wants equality and democracy within the United States.”
The hearing should make it clear that Puerto Rico does not want to pursue the fantasy of gaining voting rights through negotiation. Puerto Rico wants permanent equal rights through statehood. Congress needs to understand that it is not a question of waiting for Puerto Rico to make up her mind. It is time for Congress to act on the expressed wishes of the territory of Puerto Rico, and to admit Puerto Rico as a state.