Puerto Rico has been a self-governing commonwealth of the United States since 1952, a status that has survived many reform efforts. But there is a bill in Congress that presents a novel issue. The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009 would initiate a series of convoluted plebiscites with the ultimate goal of Puerto Rico’s addition to the Union as the 51st state—despite the fact that a plurality of the island opposes such an outcome. Indeed, the act is designed to fabricate a false, inflated majority for statehood by making the people choose between their least-preferred options rather than their most-preferred.
A HISTORY OF VOTING
Since 1952 Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood three times. In a 1993 plebiscite, 48.6 percent voted to remain a commonwealth, with statehood and independence receiving, respectively, 46.3 percent and 4.4 percent. In 1998, the New Progressive Party (NPP)—longtime supporters of Puerto Rican statehood—excluded the commonwealth option from a plebiscite by arguing that the Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) inability to enhance the island’s commonwealth status after 1993 was proof that it was impossible to do so. In a contest designed to favor statehood, an unexpected victor emerged: it was the “none of the above” option defended by the PDP, which won the plebiscite with 50.1 percent against statehood’s 46.5 percent.
Now, back in power, the NPP is sponsoring a bill in Congress that calls for a two-round plebiscite that circumvents the previous results through a manipulation of the democratic process. In the first round, the people would be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of whether to remain a commonwealth. Based on the 1993 results, 48.6 percent would vote yes and 50.7 percent (the sum of those voting for statehood and independence) would vote no. With a “no” victory, a second election would be called in which Puerto Ricans would choose between statehood and independence, without a “none of the above” option. Given a choice between statehood and independence, approximately 90 percent of the Puerto Rican population would favor the former, and thus, through clever manipulations, statehood supporters will have finally pulled off a victory.
THE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY
The PDP opposition, of course, calls the bill a “scheme.” Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party Chairman Roberto Prats told the HPR that the bill “makes a mockery of the most basic elements of the people’s inalienable right to political self determination” because it effectively excludes half of the electorate: those who want to remain a commonwealth. Prats lambasted the bill’s congressional co-sponsors for “refusing to observe the democratic values [that America] holds the rest of the world accountable for.” Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, however, supports the bill and strongly disagrees with the PDP’s claims. In an interview with the HPR, he defended the bill’s structure, deeming it “appropriate to pose a neutral question as to whether a voter supports the present relationship” or prefers to “change to a permanent, non-territorial status.”
LETTING WINNERS WIN
Prats noted, however, that President Obama has expressed his commitment to Puerto Ricans’ right to choose between three options: commonwealth, statehood, and independence. Prats argued that enhancing the commonwealth is a matter of “diplomatic craftsmanship, not fanciful legal constitutional construction [because] when it comes to developing political relationships, the U.S. Constitution left the field wide open.” For Prats, the issue is not the commonwealth’s capacity to enhance itself, but statehood supporters’ desire to exclude that possibility. And Kenneth Shepsle, a Harvard government professor, said that the bill “is absolutely loaded to produce statehood.” Shepsle maintained that “the appropriate [second] referendum is between statehood and commonwealth status,” and if commonwealth should win, enhancements to that arrangement should be made by its supporters.
Self-determination relies on choosing between the most-favored alternatives, not the least. Unless the people of Puerto Rico agree on a fair and democratic procedure for reforming their government’s status, instead of trying to preordain the results, efforts to enhance the commonwealth will prove, yet again, to have been in vain.
Professor Shepsle’s quotes have been corrected. Their original versions were not word-for-word accurate, although their meanings were identical.
Pablo Hernandez ’13 is a Contributing Writer.
Photo Credit: Jami Dwyer (Flickr)