Setting the record straight: A response to Puerto Rico’s governor


Puerto Rico’s governor recently wrote about the results of the U.S. territory’s November status referendum (“Moving forward together,” May 20), painting a picture that bears little resemblance to what actually transpired.    
 

ADVERTISEMENT
The governor supports Puerto Rico’s current territory status, while I support statehood. I cannot comprehend how one can defend a status that deprives the 3.7 million U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico of voting representation in their national government, denies them equal treatment under federal law, and is the root cause of the significant economic and security problems on the island that the governor bemoans.
 
Pro-status quo leaders are entitled to their beliefs. But they are not entitled to distort the referendum results simply because those results are not to their liking.  
 
The referendum’s first question asked if Puerto Rico should continue as a territory. Pro-status quo leaders urged a “yes” vote. Of the 1.8 million voters who answered, 970,910 voters — 53.97 percent — voted “no” and 828,077 voters — 46.03 percent — voted “yes.” This was the result — the vote totals and the percentages — certified by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission, consisting of representatives from each of the territory’s status-based parties.
 
Pro-status quo politicians are now trying to claim that “No” actually obtained 51.7 percent of the vote, slicing 2.2 percent from the certified result. They manage this sleight of hand by adding 67,000 blank ballots and 13,000 invalidated ballots to the 1.8 million ballots properly cast, and using that total as the new denominator.

But counting blank and invalid ballots contradicts general election law, Puerto Rico election law (which says a blank ballot “shall not be deemed to be a vote cast”) and common sense — one cannot divine voter intent from a blank or invalid ballot. Clearly, the goal of the pro-status quo party is not intellectual coherence; the objective is to complicate and confuse.
 
In the referendum’s second question, voters expressed their preference among the three alternatives to territory status. Of the 1.36 million voters who chose an option, 834,191 voters — 61.16 percent — chose statehood. The number of votes for statehood on the second question exceeded the number of votes for the current status on the first question. For the first time, more people want Puerto Rico to become a state than to remain a territory.
 
These are the official vote totals and percentages certified by the Elections Commission. This result cannot just be wished away by those who find it inconvenient.
 
However, to downplay the results of the second question, the status quo party again summons the blank ballots argument. In the run-up to the vote, some pro-status quo leaders did encourage their followers to leave this question blank. Presumably, some — but by no means all — of the 500,000 ballots that were left blank were done so in response to that appeal. If blank ballots are included in the vote total, the theory runs, the 61 percent vote for statehood becomes 45 percent.
 
This argument falls flat. In our democracy, outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. We can speculate that some voters may have left the second question blank because they prefer the current territory status to its alternatives. Those voters were able to vote for that status in the first question, so their viewpoint was reflected in the results. Others may have declined to answer because they believed another option should have been on the ballot — a best-of-all-worlds proposal promoted by the governor’s party called “Enhanced Commonwealth.” But federal officials have consistently rejected this proposal on legal and policy grounds, so it could not appear as a choice on the second question.  
 
The governor appropriately praises President Obama for the actions he has taken in response to the November referendum, but ignores the fact that, after the vote, a White House spokesman confirmed that “a majority chose statehood in the second question” — rejecting the theory that blank ballots should be computed in the vote total.  
 
Since the referendum, my explanation of the outcome has not deviated from the certified results, which demonstrate that a majority of my constituents want to end territory status, a supermajority favor statehood among the alternatives and more voters want statehood than territory status. Now the federal government must respond.
 
To obstruct change, the status quo party misrepresents the referendum results. The same voters who placed the governor in office also voted against territory status and for statehood. He ignores them at his own peril.
 
Pierluisi, a Democrat, is Puerto Rico’s sole representative in the U.S. Congress.