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It’s Not Gore Vs. Bush, It’s Vote Vs. Don’t Vote

by Lance Oliver

September 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

To vote or not to vote for president. That’s the question and there are many arguments about it.

The U.S. Justice Department has launched its appeal of the ruling by District Court Judge Jaime Pieras giving Puerto Ricans the right to vote in this year’s presidential election. Justice is urging the Court of Appeals in Boston to hear arguments quickly and overturn the ruling so the commonwealth does not waste money and energy organizing a meaningless presidential vote.

Also in a hurry, the Legislature and Gov. Pedro Rossello rushed the measure authorizing the presidential ballot through the approval process in record time in a special legislative session, heeding the warnings of State Elections Commission Chairman Juan R. Melecio that there was little time to prepare.

The opponents of the vote wasted no time, either. Just hours after Rossello signed the bill into law, the Puerto Rican Independence Party filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to stop authorities from spending public funds on the vote. The pro-autonomy political organization ProELA followed up with its own lawsuit trying to stop the vote.

Trying to create a presidential vote where one has never been held before, and doing it in the course of just a couple of months, is more complicated than it might sound. The Legislature tried to simplify the process by making the representatives of the political parties, who will count the votes in the local elections, also responsible for the presidential vote. This is unpopular with the parties that oppose the vote in the first place, of course, but it simplifies the process by using an existing system.

Melecio said that the party officials will be obligated to count the presidential votes, not just the votes cast in the local elections.

Meanwhile, the local lawsuits seek to have the vote declared unconstitutional under the Puerto Rico constitution and to prohibit the expenditure of public funds for the vote. The suits argue that a presidential vote is actually subsidizing the statehood cause.

And in one more twist that only makes these confrontations more complicated yet, the PIP lawsuit alleges the legislative vote approving the bill that authorizes the presidential ballot was made minutes after midnight on the day the special legislative session was scheduled to end. Among other arguments, the suit contends the bill is therefore illegal because it came about 10 minutes late.

All of which is really a sideshow to the main confrontation, which will take place in the Court of Appeals in Boston. The federal Justice Department has challenged the presidential vote on a variety of grounds and the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party announced it would ask to be heard as a "friend of the court" in the case.

The Justice Department’s appeal of Pieras’s ruling argues that the judge ignored legal precedents and issued findings clearly in conflict with the wording of the U.S. Constitution.

The primary argument is that the Constitution clearly reserves to the states the right to elect the president and vice president. Article II says that each state must name electors based on the number of Senators and Representatives it has in Congress.

Puerto Rico is not a state.

Puerto Rico has no senators or representatives in Congress.

Therefore Puerto Rico cannot choose electors to participate in the Electoral College process regardless of what the voters put on a ballot.

That’s the essence of the argument against the Pieras ruling.

There is more, however. The Justice Department also points to precedents it contends were ignored by Pieras. It also attacks Pieras’s argument that the right to vote is an integral part of the rights of any citizen. It notes that the Constitution had to be amended to give women, 18-year-olds and residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote, or, in the case of the capital, the right to vote for president. All of those people were U.S. citizens but did not have full voting rights at one time.

In many ways, the presidential campaign has launched a battle in Puerto Rico that’s as fiercely fought as the one in any of the states. But on the island, the fight is not between Al Gore and George W. Bush, but between a more basic question: to vote or not to vote.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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