Lost in the presidential politics of this election is a vote in Puerto Rico to determine if the island should remain a territory or become a state, independent or form a “sovereign free relationship” with the United States.
On November 6, Puerto Rican voters will have two questions to answer. The first asks if Puerto Rican voters if they want to continue their current territorial status. The second question gives voters the choice of what non-territorial option they prefer.
No matter what choice Puerto Ricans pick, Congress will make the ultimate decision. That is the reality when a people live in a territory. They can’t vote for president, and they can’t determine their own future. However, what the Puerto Ricans pick will have an enormous political influence on Congress.
If Puerto Ricans want to be independent, it is hard to imagine that Congress would deny that option. The international pressure, as well as the national pressure would be intense. The same can be said for the “sovereign free relationship” status and statehood.
It is statehood that poses the greatest political challenge. Unlike small territories like the Virgin Islands or Guam, Puerto Rico has a population of 3.7 million. If it was a state, that would make it the 29th largest. It won’t be easy to dismiss the will of Puerto Ricans given that fact. The problem is for Puerto Ricans to figure out what they want to do.
Plebiscites in 1967, 1993 and 1998 came to the same result – no decision.
Independence is unlikely. The best vote it ever ran up is 4.4% in 1993. Commonwealth or maintaining the current status has either received over 50% of the vote or narrowly been below that mark. Voting for commonwealth status was the same as continuing the current territorial status. Free association was offered on the ballot for the first time in 1998, but it couldn’t even break 1% in support. Statehood has gradually increased from 39% in 1967 to over 46% in 1998.
Despite never being able to manifest a majority for change, many Puerto Ricans feel slighted by Congress. They are American citizens but they aren’t treated equally as long as the live on the island instead of the mainland.
“Our problem isn’t one of status. It is one of discrimination against Hispanics, four million Hispanics. We are U.S. citizens, we are disenfranchised and we have been disenfranchised for almost 100 years. This is not an issue of asking for statehood; this is a matter of demanding equality in our citizenship. If the only way we can have it is by being a state, then that is Congress’ problem, not ours,” said Former Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Barceló.
Romero is right about that disenfranchisement, but the only way the Puerto Ricans can demand equality is by expressing it in the ballot box so it isn’t totally Congress’ problem. At least not yet.
Realistically, independence would be lucky to break 5% of support in the vote. The real question is if a majority of Puerto Ricans will reject territorial status and then pick statehood as a majority over sovereign association. Nevertheless, getting a majority out of three options is difficult.
Polls show statehood at 41% with 20% undecided. Sovereign commonwealth status trails narrowly behind, but it may only be confusing voters. Puerto Rico has commonwealth status as a territory. Sovereign commonwealth is something in between independence and the current status. It is felt that some voters are not certain of the difference. They can’t be faulted. A sovereign free relationship remains a vague concept, and, remember, Congress gets the final say. If it passes and Congress acts, then it may be something totally different from what anyone is currently imagining.
A pro-statehood vote will raise another issue — the status of the District of Columbia. Efforts have been made to make the District a state. People there can vote for President, but they don’t have representation in Congress. The District is also a bastion of the Democratic Party. Republicans don’t support more Democrats in Congress so statehood is stalled
Puerto Rico tends to lean Republican though. It could be the next red state if admitted to the union, but probably a competitive one along the line of Missouri or North Carolina. Puerto Rico would probably have about seven electoral votes since its population is almost the same as Oklahoma’s and that state has seven electoral votes. By comparison, the District of Columbia would only have three electoral votes. It would be the bluest of the blue states though.
When this election is done, there maybe more than a President and Congress choosen. The United States may begin the process of adding two more states. Unfortunately, that isn’t getting the attention that it needs.