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Puerto Rico In The Presidential Election?


October 13, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is one strange political hybrid. It is not a state of the Union or a sovereign nation but a "Commonwealth" of the Unites States.

Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes if they live in Puerto Rico but must pay them if they live in one of the 50 states. They are American citizens who elect their own governor and legislature, and they may vote in presidential primaries even if they live in Puerto Rico itself.

However, they do not have a voting representative in Congress and cannot vote in the general election unless they live in the United States proper.

It is this last provision that is now under fire. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston (which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico) heard arguments earlier this week that Puerto Ricans who live on the island are being deprived of a basic right of U.S. citizenship, the right to vote for president.

They claim -- rightly so -- that actions taken by the President of the United States affect Puerto Ricans as much as people from Wisconsin or Alabama.

In opposition, Justice Department lawyers argued that only citizens who live in a full-fledged state with electors who vote in the Electoral College are Constitutionally permitted to vote for president.

It may sound like a choice between one of the most fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy and a legal technicality. But it is not that simple.

For one thing, there's Puerto Rican domestic politics behind this. The lawsuit was filed by a group of pro-statehood Puerto Rican activists, with the backing of Gov. Pedro Roselló, the leader of the pro-statehood party; it plans to hold a Presidential election even if the court decides it does not count. The suit is opposed by the party that seeks outright independence and the party that wants Puerto Rico to remain a Commonwealth.

The pro-statehood forces, defeated in referendums in 1993 and 1998 that asked voters in Puerto Rico to decide the political status of the island, apparently wants to gain statehood by increments. Today the vote, tomorrow the 51st State.

The pro-Commonwealth party, which won both referendums, worries that gaining the vote is a step toward statehood, a proposition that the people voted against.

And the independence party-supported by no more than 5 percent of voters in Puerto Rico -- wants nothing to do with electing the leader of what it considers a foreign nation.

However, domestic politics aside, there are still issues of principle at stake here, issues that have to do with the nature of democracy.

If it is true that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico are American citizens denied the right to vote, it is just as true that they voted to have it that way. Two times Puerto Rico has had the opportunity to petition to join the Union or become an independent country. Two times it has chosen to remain a Commonwealth.

Besides, for Puerto Rico to have the benefits of statehood it must also have the inconveniences. Paying federal taxes, for one. And accepting that statehood is forever. Right now, Puerto Ricans have the legal right, which they have twice exercised, to decline to join the Union. That right will disappear if they ever decide to join-states may not leave the Union on pain of war, as demonstrated in 1861.

The people of Puerto Rico may some day in the future vote to join the Union and accept everything that comes with it, good and bad. Or they may choose to go the way of the rest of Latin America and become independent. Or they may decide to stay what they are.

Right now, they are a Commonwealth, a decision made by the electorate in full consciousness that it means no voting Congressman and no vote in the Presidential election. Only the people of Puerto Rico, not a judge, should have the power to change that.

Roger E. Hernández is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in- Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at

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