Playing with the numbers to push Puerto Rican statehood

The Puerto Rican statehood movement has not been able to convince Congress that the November 2012 plebiscite was not a hoax.

Statehood has always been defeated by the commonwealth option when the two compete side by side in a single ballot. It happened in 1967 and again in 1993. To get around this problem and create the appearance of a statehood majority, the pro-statehood party in power back in 2012 devised a process that split the vote into two separate questions. First, do you favor the current status? Second, regardless of how you answered the first question, which one of the following other alternatives do you prefer: statehood, independence or free association? Splitting the vote this way sought to conceal that statehood could still be lagging behind commonwealth.

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Out of 1.8 million voters, the current status got 828,077 votes in the first question and statehood  834,191 in the second. Of total ballots cast, those numbers represent 44.07 percent and 44.4 percent, respectively. Thus, statehood got 0.33 percent more votes than the current status. Although a statistical tie, it is more votes nonetheless. But here is the problem.

Those who voted for the current status in the first question were instructed to answer the second question as well. Many refused to do so and left that second question blank. But hundreds of thousands did. Since there was no cross tabulation, we do not know for certain how those commonwealth supporters answered the second question. Most seem to have gone for free association. But some, even if just a few, must have opted for statehood. If at least 0.7 percent of commonwealth supporters chose statehood in the second question, statehood would be claiming victory with borrowed votes. Ironically, with pro-commonwealth votes.

Since support for commonwealth and statehood is now roughly evenly divided, it has become a game of inches. And the statehood party plays it cunningly. To discourage some commonwealth voters, the ballot did not use the Spanish term for Commonwealth, "Estado Libre Asociado," to identify that option in the first question. It referred to it just as: "the current status." That might not seem like a big deal, until you realize that the second question uses "Estado Libre Asociado" with the added adjective "Soberano" (sovereign) to designate the different status of free association.

Commonwealth supporters have always advocated for amendments to the compact and "Estado Libre Asociado Soberano" is a term that some have used as a reference to that aspiration. They do not seek a change of status, only improvements to the current one in ways that do not alter its nature. With malice aforethought, the use of the terms "the current status" in the first question and "Estado Libre Asociado Soberano" in the second was designed to bewilder the Commonwealth voter. The "current status," insofar as the term forecloses the possibility of enhancements, does not quite fit his or her full set of beliefs, much less "Estado Libre Asociado Soberano" when pegged to free association.

That explains the huge amount of blank ballots. In past plebiscites between 2,000 and 4,000 voters have cast blank ballots. But here, 67,000 did so in the first question and 500,000 in the second. Forcing commonwealth supporters to feel excluded and leave ballots blank was part of the statehood plan. It is what allows them to claim that a majority rejected the status quo in the first question and, by simply ignoring those blank ballots, that 61% voted for statehood in the second, otherwise its just 44.4%. The assertion does not seem to have gained any traction beyond the usual connivers. But the statehood acolytes continue to repeat it.

The statehood party is hard pressed to come up with a super-majority for statehood because they have been told, rightly so, that Congress will not act on a statehood petition unless a clear majority of the Puerto Ricans want it. But who are they fooling with this 2012 plebiscite? Until now, mostly only themselves.

Hernández-Mayoral is secretary of Federal Affairs for the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico.