Yesterday Puerto Rico held a plebiscite on its political status. A whopping 97% of the voters favored statehood. The remainder of the vote was split between the other two options, independence and continuation of the island’s status as a US territory.
Statehood thus won a majority of the vote, just as it did in 2012, when Puerto Ricans last considered the question. The main differences between this vote and the last seem to be, first, the current governor favors statehood whereas the governor in 2012 did not, and, second, the opposition parties, evidently aware they were going to lose, called for a boycott of the vote and succeeded in depressing turnout, which was less than 25%.
The first question to consider is whether the boycott deprives the vote of legitimacy. The answer, in my view, is no. It has been clear for years that statehood is the most popular option for the future of the island. Only a very small percentage favor independence. A large minority favors continuation of territorial status, but among those there is some disagreement about what changes if any should be made to the island’s status. The minority should not be able to frustrate the majority’s will by opting out of the election. And in any case, while territorial government is okay if that’s what the people of Puerto Rico want, and while territorial government may be especially appropriate for smaller outlying islands, Puerto Rico is a large and well-established political community of more than 3 million people that in my view ought, finally, to make up its mind to fish or cut bait. Permanent territorial status seems unstable and unwise.
What comes next? Historically there are several procedural paths territories have taken on their way to statehood. Puerto Rico’s governor recently signed a bill indicating that Puerto Rico will now try to make use of the Tennessee Plan, which as the name suggests was the method Tennessee used to become a state at the end of the eighteenth century. Rather than petitioning Congress to take action, Tennessee declared itself a state, sent two senators and some representatives to Washington and demanded to be seated, basically daring Congress to say no.
Both parties are already on record supporting the right of Puerto Rico’s voters to choose their political status, including statehood, so one would think that Congress would simply admit Puerto Rico as a state without ado. There are complicating factors, though. First, the Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, may not be eager to admit a new Democratic-leaning state. Second, Puerto Rico’s ongoing debt crisis may influence Congress, since perhaps Congress would feel more of an obligation to bail out the State of Puerto Rico than it has felt so far to bail out the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Third, the alt-right may have some influence against statehood to the extent it has influence on the Republican Party, because it will not favor admission of a Spanish-speaking state with what it would consider a foreign culture. Fourth, the low turnout may give those opposed to statehood room to argue that the plebiscite doesn’t represent the will of the Puerto Rican people, particularly because the Department of Justice did not sign off on the wording of the ballot before the vote and the opponents of the outcome have raised questions about the wording (though the ballot, at least in English translation, seems clear enough to me).
All that said, in light of the clear outcome of the vote, it seems to me that Congress ought to move towards a statehood vote with all reasonable speed.
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