The 1998 Plebiscite Revisited
It has been 6 1/2 years since the residents of Puerto Rico went to the polls to express a preference for a permanent political status.
On that occasion, the status definitions offered to voters were lifted from a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 856), the so-called "Young Bill." The U.S. Senate took no floor action on HR 856, but did pass Senate Resolution #279 authorizing Puerto Rico, "through referendum or other means, to communicate its desires on future political status to the federal government, and that the federal government will consider such communication."
Based on this Congressional invitation, an island-wide referendum was held on December 13, 1998, authorized locally by an act of the Puerto Rico Legislature, signed into local law by the then Governor, Pedro Rosselló. The intent of the legislation was to offer voters a constitutionally valid choice among the definitions provided by the U.S. Congress.
It did not happen. Because local law required that an escape option, called "none of the above," be provided on the ballot, and because 50.6% of the voters choose this option, confusion remains as to what congressionally defined option Puerto Ricans prefer to achieve eventual sovereignty.
This week Herald readers can revisit the 1998 plebiscite, this time with no "none of the above" ballot choice.
The Young Bill had been unambiguous on one point. It clearly stated that "full self-government is attainable only through establishment of a political status which is based on either separate sovereignty and nationality or full and equal United States nationality and citizenship through membership in the Union." Stated simply, only statehood and independence would provide the island with sovereignty. Continuation of the Commonwealth arrangement was offered as an interim option, but not one that could convey sovereignty.
The Commonwealth option stipulated that Puerto Rico was "joined in a relationship with and under the national sovereignty of the United States." It provided for local self-government, so long as its laws were "consistent with the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States." The American citizenship of persons born in Puerto Rico was assured, as was the participation of its residents in certain Federal programs, as determined by Federal law.
Put succinctly, the Commonwealth was described for what it had been since the promulgation of its Constitution in 1952 and what it continues to be today, a locally self-governing unincorporated territory of the United States, subject to the authority of the U.S. Congress.
Less than one percent of voters chose the territorial Commonwealth option in December 1998.
Other status options presented were: Separate Sovereignty by Independence, Separate Sovereignty by Independence with Free Association and Sovereignty through U.S. Statehood.
The final tally showed "None of the above" with 50.6%, Independence with 02.6%, Free Association with 00.2%, Statehood with 46.6% and, as noted, the Territorial Commonwealth with 00.1% of voter support.
After the voting, the prominent public opinion polling firm of Zogby International contacted a statistically valid sample of Puerto Ricans who said that they had chosen "none of the above" on the ballot. The results showed that 37% of respondents said their vote was for support of "another definition of Commonwealth." Some 40% said they chose the "none of the above" column for such reasons as irritation that the vote was held during the Christmas holiday season, anger over the devastation of Hurricane George that had swept the island several months earlier, outrage over the Rosselló administrations privatization of the public telephone company and antagonism towards Governor Pedro Rosselló generally. The remaining 23% said they were confused by the ballot language.
Pollster John Zogby summed up his results, "When you consider the number of people who voted for the "none of the above" ballot, and the number of people who voted in protest, then combine these with the number of people who were simply confused by the text, the results show the referendum shouldn't count."
Now that Presidential candidate John Kerry has clarified his position of support for a self-determination process for Puerto Rico that is "non territorial" and President Bush is awaiting the findings of a task force to come up with status options to grant sovereignty to the island by means that are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, it appears that there will be another plebiscite process in place during the next Presidential administration, regardless of who is elected the November.
If there is one factor on which both agree, it is that the status quo Commonwealth is a territorial status, and can never convey sovereignty to Puerto Rico.
Here are the ballot options and definitions for your consideration today:
Option 1: CURRENT STATUS (Commonwealth, no sovereignty. Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the United States. Future U.S. Citizenship retained at the pleasure of Congress). ?
Option 2: FREE ASSOCIATION (Nationality, sovereignty and Puerto Rico citizenship by separation from the United States with a treaty of Free Association. No future U.S. citizenship guaranteed).?
Option 3: STATEHOOD (Sovereignty by union with the Unites States by becoming the 51st state. U.S. Citizenship guaranteed).
Option 4: INDEPENDENCE (Nationality, sovereignty and Puerto Rican citizenship by separation from the United States. No future U.S. Citizenship).