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Understanding the Puerto Rico Status Vote

December 14, 1998
©Copyright 1998 Citizens Educational Foundation

In Puerto Rico's plebiscite statehood was approved by 46.5% of the voters, the highest number of votes among the status options presented on the ballot. Among the other status options recognized under U.S. law, independence received 2.5% voter approval, the current commonwealth a scant 0.1%, and independence with a treaty of free association won only 0.2% of the votes cast.

A "None of the Above" option on the ballot received 50.2% of the vote. This confirms the need for Congress to ascertain the will of the people of Puerto Rico among options Congress is willing to consider. This can be accomplished only if Congress sponsors a referendum under federal law and informs the voters of the terms for continuing the current status or changing to a new status.

Voter rejection of the present territorial commonwealth status, rejection of independence in any form, combined with voter reluctance to make a choice among known options, reflects a need for federal territorial policy reform which Congress can no longer ignore. For only Congress has the authority and responsibility under the U.S. Constitution to define the terms for resolution of Puerto Rico's status.

More specifically, the landslide against commonwealth is legally and politically significant because the current commonwealth was created by Congress in 1950 under U.S. Public Law 600 based on consent of the voters in a referendum sponsored by Congress. Rejection of commonwealth under P.L. 600 means only Congress can establish a process to restore government by consent.

In the absence of action by Congress, Puerto Rico is now once again in the same condition it was prior to 1950. The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised in the federal political process to which they are subject, and administration by the U.S. under the commonwealth created by Congress is not a consensual or fully self-governing status.

This dilemma is underscored by the "None of the Above" vote, which has no legal meaning. Instead of an act of informed self-determination between feasible status alternatives to which Congress could respond, a significant number of voters to chose to avoid an informed choice. In addition, the organized partisan campaign supporting "None of the Above" espoused the contradictory doctrines of permanent union with U.S. citizenship and nullification of the constitutional and legal elements of U.S. law accurately presented in the four feasible status options presented on the ballot.

The historical vote favoring statehood over all available options sets the stage for further integration of Puerto Rico into the political, economic and fiscal system of the nation. Ultimately, Congress must exercise its exclusive power to define terms for Puerto Rico to remain under U.S. sovereignty or achieve separate sovereignty. Only then can the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico make an informed choice in a Congressionally sponsored self-determination process to resolve the status of the territory permanently.

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