The New York Times
Citizens Who Can't Vote For President
The spectacle in Florida has an extra resonance in Puerto Rico
By Edda Ponsa-Flores
December 8, 2000
SAN JUAN, P.R. -- With the nation's eyes still fixed on Florida's interminable battle over presidential votes, no one seems to be commenting on what happened a little farther south, where millions of registered voters were prevented from casting any ballots at all in the presidential election.
I refer to the voters of the United States territory of Puerto Rico . Out of more than 2.4 million registered voters in the commonwealth, roughly 2 million went to the polls to cast ballots in local elections on Nov. 7.
Until just a few days before the election, these voters expected to find a presidential ballot when they arrived at the polls. It wouldn't have provided them with an actual voice in the election, since Puerto Rico has no votes in the Electoral College. But it would have been a chance to indicate a preference -- a small but potentially important first step toward actually getting the franchise.
Incomplete though it was, this nonbinding referendum would have been the first-ever presidential vote in Puerto Rico in the 102 years since the United States declared sovereignty over the island. And for the first time citizens in Puerto Rico -- yes, we are American citizens -- would have had a chance to express their choice of a commander in chief, though they are subject to the military draft and have fought in United States conflicts abroad since 1917.
This symbolic but much-anticipated presidential vote didn't happen because Puerto Rico 's Supreme Court ruled against it. The court declared that such a ballot -- ordered by the Puerto Rico Legislature after local voters won a suit in a lower court -- violated the Puerto Rican Constitution. The reason: Since the presidential ballots would not actually be counted in the federal election, administering such a vote would have used public money for a nonpublic purpose.
Puerto Rico 's presidential votes do not count for a simple reason. The United States Constitution doesn't guarantee citizens the right to vote for the presidency. As we are constantly reminded these days, Article II gives the states (and, more recently, the District of Columbia), not the people, the power to elect the president. Individuals have only the right to vote on an equal basis with other citizens in their jurisdictions. And the Constitution makes no provision for territories, like Puerto Rico and Guam, in the Electoral College.
The United States Court of Appeals in Boston reminded Puerto Rico of this fact a month before the election, when, at the behest of the Department of Justice, it overruled a ruling by the Federal District Court in San Juan, which had ruled that Puerto Ricans had a fundamental right to vote for president simply by virtue of being American citizens.
The time has come to grant these citizens -- and those residing in other United States territories -- the right to vote for the president of the United States.
This enfranchisement, this democratic representation, doesn't have to be connected with statehood . The District of Columbia got its three electoral votes with the 1961 passage of the 23rd Amendment to the United States Constitution. Why not pass a new constitutional amendment guaranteeing the vote to United States citizens of Puerto Rico and, perhaps, other territories?
After the flurry over chads has settled in Florida, the national debate over the respective roles of the popular vote and the electoral vote will surely continue.
Then, perhaps some of the defenders of democracy so active in Florida will look a bit beyond the mainland and take up the question of why presidential ballots don't count if they are cast by citizens in Puerto Rico.
Edda Ponsa-Flores is a lawyer practicing in San Juan.