The Puerto Rico Status Act includes a provision to conduct a voter education campaign. This campaign will be undertaken through “traditional paid media” and also will have materials available at all polling places. The materials will be available in Spanish and in English.
The Puerto Rico Elections Commission has 60 days to pull the materials together and submit them to the Attorney General for review. The Attorney General then has 45 days to accept the materials or to ask for changes. The Elections Commission has another 45 days to make the requested changes.
What will be covered by the voter education materials?
The voter education materials may include more than the following points, but must cover at least these topics for each of the options on the ballot:
- taxation of persons and business
- international representation
- access and treatment under Federal law and programs
The materials must be nonpartisan, and the bill calls for federal funds to cover the costs of the voter education campaign. A law passed under President Obama already provided funds for a plebiscite which have not been used yet.
Statehood is simple
It will be easy to prepare the materials for the statehood option. We already have 50 states, and they can provide the model for the 51st state.
Most matters of taxation, including sales taxes and property taxes, are under the jurisdiction of individual states. Federal income tax is the same from one state to another, and Puerto Rico will be the same as the other states.
Some previous status laws have proposed that Puerto Rico should not be required to pay federal income tax until some conditions are met. For example, they might delay until the average income in Puerto Rico is equal to the average income in the states. However, the average income in Puerto Rico is currently too low to require that taxes be paid.
International representation will be the same for Puerto Rico as for any other state. Immigration and citizenship laws will be the same for Puerto Rico as for all other states; the U.S. Constitution will apply fully to the citizens of Puerto Rico, and U.S. citizenship will be the same for people born in Puerto Rico as for people born in any current state.
Puerto Rico will be treated the same under federal laws and programs as all the other states. The Constitution says simply that all states are on an equal footing.
Otherwise, it’s complicated
Independence, including independence with a Compact of Free Association, is more complicated to predict that statehood. The Philippines had a ten-year transition to independence. The Puerto Rico Status Act gives the date of the first meeting of a constitutional convention as the date on which U.S. laws cease to apply in Puerto Rico.
The Philippines negotiated a number of things with the United States, and Puerto Rico would need to do the same. Most of the negotiations would take place as treaty negotiations between the United States and the new nation of Puerto Rico. It is not possible for all these details to be hammered out before the plebiscite.
The details could also change.
For example, the United States ended veterans’ benefits to veterans from the Philippines. The president who signed the law ending those benefits was not the same president who had signed the law granting independence.
Under free association, either side could change or even end the Compact of Free Association unilaterally — that is, without the agreement of the other side.
Under independence with or without free association, The Puerto Rico Status Act says that Puerto Rico will make all the decisions about its citizenship and immigration laws. These laws therefore cannot be settled by the territory before the plebiscite. Nor can access to federal programs be guaranteed; each Congress makes those decisions for the current COFA nations, and no Congress is bound by the decisions of an earlier Congress.
The Department of Justice will oversee the educational materials, so we hope that materials on free association will not be able to promise things that can’t be delivered. We see the danger of this, however. We remember hearing Nydia Velazquez briskly respond, “It’s in the bill” to journalists asking about citizenship under free association.
It’s not actually in the bill. We look forward to seeing how the voter education materials handle this issue.