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Puerto Rico governor asks Justice Department to reconsider stance on statehood plebiscite

Puerto Rico governor asks Justice Department to reconsider stance on statehood plebiscite
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Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced (R) on Wednesday demanded that the federal government turn over funds appropriated by Congress to support the 2020 plebiscite on the territory's status.

In a letter to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrPolice accountability board concludes that Seattle police officers used excessive force during encounters with protesters Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money MORE and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen delivered Thursday, Vázquez Garced admonished Barr for a July 29 decision not to obligate the funds, which were originally intended to help voter outreach and education for a similar plebiscite in 2017.

"After careful review of the determination, I must express my disappointment with it and take this opportunity to address some misconceptions, oversights, and misguided reasoning described in the letter," wrote Vázquez Garced.

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At issue is a $2.5 million fund that Vázquez Garced said her government intends to use to "help ensure the timely delivery of ballots and the count of every voter's choice."

Vázquez Garced said in her letter that the yes/no referendum on statehood, which will be included along with ballots in November's general election, will go forward whether the funding is received or not.

The funds were originally appropriated by Congress for the 2017 referendum, but they were not turned over by DOJ after a spat over the wording of the status question, and the timing of a DOJ review of wording on the ballot.

Vázquez Garced referenced that conflict in her letter, as it began with DOJ demanding the 2017 status referendum — originally planned as a binary option between statehood and free association/independence — include an option for the current territorial status to be preserved.

Puerto Rico's current status, once viewed as a viable hybrid between full independence and territorial status, was essentially rendered obsolete by a Supreme Court decision in 2017 that ruled the island is a U.S. territory.

The aftermath of that decision strengthened the popularity of statehood, once viewed as an unrealistic option.

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It also raised the profile of the option of free association, a model used by three South Pacific states that are former U.S. territories, whose citizens are not U.S. nationals and do not receive U.S. passports, but are for the most part allowed to freely live and work in the United States.

November's referendum seeks to resolve Puerto Rico's core political issue, statehood, with a ballot question that will read, "Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State? Yes or No."

The referendum and its potential effect on national election results in Florida have heightened the issue's profile in Congress, where pro- and anti-statehood members have introduced competing bills and resolutions on the issue.

In its original $2.5 million appropriation in 2017, Congress instructed the DOJ to approve a plan for the plebiscite, including approval of the wording on the ballot.

Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) butted heads with the administration's demands on timing and inclusion of a third option, resulting in an unsanctioned vote where only 23 percent of Puerto Rican voters participated.

Of those who did participate, 97 percent voted in favor of statehood.

In re-appropriating the funds for 2020, the House of Representatives ordered the option to remain in the current status "be excluded from any future plebiscite, since it fails to address key inequities," and gave DOJ 45 days to present a plan for a plebiscite.

"Unfortunately, this was not done. As such, the DOJ's own disregard of the new Congressional deadlines and directives to provide acceptable plebiscite materials to the required parties caused the delayed and limited timeframe for review," wrote Vázquez Garced.

Vázquez Garced said DOJ accused her government of not providing enough time "to complete a multi-layered analysis" of the referendum, citing the appropriations rules under which DOJ withheld the funding in 2017 after Rosselló demanded an expedited review of the ballot.

"Yet, the July 29th letter cites the outdated former Congressional directives … that became obsolete," with the updated appropriations, wrote Vázquez Garced.

The Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment on this story.

The governor also batted down Barr's allegations about federal intrusion into Puerto Rican affairs and wording of the plebiscite question, saying the plebiscite was conceived and legislated within the territory's own legislature.

"DOJ fails to recognize that the language for the 2020 plebiscite was selected by Puerto Rico's elected officials," wrote Vázquez Garced.

And Vázquez Garced railed against a DOJ assertion that the wording could confuse Puerto Ricans to think that admission would be automatic assuming statehood wins the referendum.

"As Congress has not voted on the results of the last two plebiscites, despite bipartisan support and the filing of bipartisan legislation, Puerto Ricans are aware that federal legislation must be enacted prior to admission," she wrote.

"The claim that language of the submitted materials may confuse the voting public of Puerto Rico lacks merit. This argument tries to veil the DOJ's animus against the people of Puerto Rico finally achieving equal rights and representation under the law," added Vázquez Garced.