If Democrats are serious about voting rights, they can't ignore Puerto Rico

If Democrats are serious about voting rights, they can't ignore Puerto Rico
© Greg Nash

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.) argued in favor of Democrat’s addressing voting rights issues, particularly in light of the continuing disenfranchisement of voters in different areas around the country. He specifically supported the Voting Rights Advancement bill, which was passed on Friday in the House. The legislation aims to establish federal oversight of state and district election laws that commit more than 15 voting rights violations over a 25-year span, among other provisions. He also declared his support for the recent bill presented regarding statehood for Washington, D.C.      

On commenting on D.C. statehood petition, he dropped the side comment that he would also support statehood for Puerto Rico, but “they are not sure they want statehood. But D.C.  had a referendum, they want statehood, and we should have them be allowed to vote in federal elections — have congressmen, have senators, etc.”

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This statement mischaracterizes the political situation in Puerto Rico and appears to be a not so veiled attempt to once again delay any consideration of Puerto Rico’s political status question in Congress.

As a matter of historical record, Puerto Rico has celebrated three status plebiscites — direct vote referendums — in the last 20 years. For purposes of keeping the record straight, a quick review of these territorial sponsored plebiscites is in order.

 In 1998, the status plebiscite included all possible constitutionally viable alternatives: statehood, territory, independence and political free association. By Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court mandate, a “none of the above” alternative was included, and which garnered a 50.3 percent of the votes. Although “none of the above” is not a status alternative, it did reflect the then electoral dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Georges in 1998. Of the four valid status alternatives, statehood obtained a majority of 46.5 percent.

In 2012, a status plebiscite was held on the same day of the general election, with a voter participation of 77.71 percent.  This plebiscite had a twofold question. The first question asked if the voter favored continued territorial status. 54 percent voted against the current territorial status. The second question offered all viable and constitutionally viable alternatives: statehood, independence and free association. Statehood obtained 61 percent of the vote. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) campaigned for the casting of a blank vote.  The 2017 the status plebiscite included once again all constitutional viable alternatives: statehood, territory, independence and political free association. Statehood obtained 97 percent of the votes cast. The PPD and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) campaigned in favor of political abstention. A 23 percent of the registered voters participated.

While the current government of Puerto Rico and the Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.), a non-voting member of Congress, have argued for and have pushed for a statehood admission bill, many in Congress have bought the idea put forward by the PPD that the 2017 plebiscite is not legitimate for lack of voter participation. Many in Congress have seen in this argument as a justification for blocking any attempt to move the issue forward.  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, comes to mind.

It should be noted that in the past three plebiscites the PPD has failed to offer any viable alternative for Puerto Rico’s political future. After the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act and the Supreme Court’s opinion Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v.  Sánchez Valle in 2016, it is clear that the PPD’s political hold on the electorate has significantly eroded. Currently, the PPD’s seeming sole reason for political existence is to block statehood and protect the tax benefits for its mainland political allies.

A couple of weeks ago the Gov. Ricardo Rosselló testified before the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico. Rosselló correctly echoed the 2007 Bush and 2011 Obama White House reports that concluded that Puerto Rico’s political status issue need to be resolved in order to address its serious fiscal and economic crisis. Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees | Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax | Interior chief takes heat for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change Democrats grill Trump Interior chief for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change Congress must press Interior secretary to act on climate change MORE (R-Alaska) has made it clear that the political status question is not a priority for the committee.  

There are those in Congress that oppose statehood for Puerto Rico for a variety of reasons, such as the protection of tax benefits for certain financial interests, cultural prejudices or — contradictorily — misdirected nationalist pride. The political cohabitation of self-anointed progressives with reactionary politicians on the issue of Puerto Rico is one that deserves a closer look.  

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Like all collective bodies, Congress is a locus of competing groups and interests, all vying for ascendency. The question that needs to be asked and answered is if those interests line up with the underlying political principles that make up the United States. Equal participation and representation in the democratic process, I would argue, is one of those principles.

The historical record does not show, as Schumer would have it, that “they are not sure they want statehood”.  Some in Puerto Rico, of course, do not want statehood. Others, an electoral majority in fact, have clearly expressed themselves in favor of statehood. Democracy is built on majority rule — not on blank votes — electoral abstention or misplaced calls for consensus, as Murkowski disingenuously suggested in her committee’s recent hearings.  Those in Congress who claim not to be sure where the American citizens in Puerto Rico stand on the issue of statehood, could well favor a federally mandated plebiscite to settle the question. The fact that they don’t speaks volumes.

If Schumer and the Democratic Party are serious in their claim of addressing voting rights issues, not merely as an electoral strategy, but as a stand taken on principle, then the Puerto Rico political status issue should be at the top of their list.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.