The weekend was a busy one for Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood party and its Republican Governor Luis Fortuño. The island’s New Progressive Party, which is led by Fortuño, approved two plebiscites that will determine Puerto Rico’s political status. The first one would be held in late 2011, with the second one to be held in early 2013.
Inspired by the recommendations of the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, the PNP would not allow the island’s current Commonwealth status (Estado Libre Asociado, or Associated Free State—also known as the ELA) as an option on the first plebiscite.
“We will file management legislation as recommended on page 28 of the task force established two ballots, the first one between the non-territorial options, statehood, independence and free association, as defined on pages 24, 25 and 26 of the report, “said Fortuño.
Free association is loosely defined as a state that is “a minor partner in a formal, free relationship between a political territory with a degree of statehood and a (usually larger) nation, for which no other specific term, such as a protectorate, is adopted.” All free associated states either are independent or have the potential right to independence. Unlike the ELA, which has a more colonial relationship with the United States, a free associated state is more in line with current thinking of political status, as supported by the United Nations.
The PNP leadership claimed that they are following the White House report faithfully.
“And we will pass legislation at the state level are going to write so that the voting process is a requirement to the President and Congress to resolve this once and for all,” Fortuño said. “We are voting to make a claim the Puerto Rican people.”
The White House report states the following on page 28 (we include part of pages 27 and 29 for more context) of its recommendation:
Two Plebiscites. In response to concerns about the potential for uncertainty that may result from a single plebiscite, many advocates have supported an approach with two plebiscites, the first of which would narrow the options and the second of which would make a final decision.A challenge with any two-tiered plebiscite system is the perception that how the votes are ordered may favor one outcome over others.
H.R.2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, provides for just such a process.It would first require voters to choose between the current political status and a different political status.Under H.R.2499, if a majority voted for the current political status, then a plebiscite would be held every 8 years to see if the electorate has changed its mind.
In the original form of the bill, if a majority voted for a different political status, the people of Puerto Rico would then have another plebiscite to vote on three options: (1) Statehood; (2) Independence; or (3) Free Association.There was criticism that, under H.R.2499 in its original form, if change of status won the first vote but the vote was close, the second vote would not include an option that perhaps 49 percent of the population supported as a first option and an unspecified number believed was the second best option.In part, for this reason, those supporting certain options objected to the bill, and, as a result, it was amended to include a fourth option in the second plebiscite: the current political status.
A second option would be the reverse of the original version of H.R.2499.Under this approach, all of the status options would be included in the first vote, except the current political status.The option that received sufficient votes from the first plebiscite (plurality, majority, or supermajority) would then be paired against the current political status in the second plebiscite.Another variation of this type would have all status options as part of the first plebiscite, with the top two vote-getters being the two options in the second plebiscite.This would effectively operate like a single plebiscite with a runoff, as discussed above.
Another variation of the two plebiscite option is to have a first plebiscite that requires the people of Puerto Rico to choose whether they wish to be part of the United States (either via Statehood or Commonwealth) or wish to be independent (via Independence or Free Association).If continuing to be part of the United States were chosen in the first plebiscite, a second vote would be taken between Statehood and Commonwealth.If independence were selected, a second vote would be taken between full Independence and Free Association.
As noted above, this last variation has certain appeal.To the extent that a core question is whether—given clear and specific information about each option and commitments that the United States would or would not make—the people of Puerto Rico would prefer to remain part of the United States or (as noted below, with their existing citizenship protected) be an independent nation, this approach would address that question directly.
Alternative Voting Systems. To overcome the limitations of a single plebiscite and the criticisms that would attend any of the above ways of managing two plebiscites, one could choose from several other systems of voting rather than a pure one-person, one-vote, one-option approach.The benefit of such systems is that they may provide more information about the will of the people; the drawbacks are that they are complex and require significant voter education.In addition, these systems do not answer the question of how many votes are sufficient to justify a change in status.
One option would be ranked voting, which would allow voters to rank the status options in order of preference.Such an approach would reveal, for example, in a single plebiscite, if a substantial majority of the people put one status option as first or second, whereas another status option was the first choice of a similar number of people, but poorly ranked by the rest of the population.A further step in this regard would be cumulative voting, which could give each voter four votes that could be distributed among several options or dedicated entirely to one; such an approach would reveal the strength of the voters’ views.
Constitutional Convention. Given the uncertainty about the status options and the need for a full debate on these issues on the Island, some advocates have suggested that a constitutional convention is a superior means for reaching resolution on the status question.Constitutional conventions have the advantage of being able to adapt the language of the status options and to allow for a more complete consideration of a variety of subsidiary issues.However, if (as discussed below) congressional legislation commits to honoring the outcome of a determination made by the people of Puerto Rico, the virtues of a constitutional convention are reduced.Any changes made by the constitutional convention to the status options outlined in the legislation could negate the commitment made by the United States, or at least require further congressional action reflecting consent to the changes made.
An additional challenge of a constitutional convention is the selection of delegates for that convention.The Task Force’s outreach indicated that there would be significant disagreement concerning how delegates would be selected.Delegates could be elected, but it is unclear whether such a process would be an improvement on the idea of a plebiscite itself.Some advocates argued that delegates should be selected from a broad swath of Puerto Rican society, with a de-emphasis on political parties.
The most common form of a constitutional convention suggested was one that itself would define the status options, which would then be taken to the people for a popular vote.Under such an approach, the constitutional convention would define the status options (or choose a single option to be presented to the people), develop a process, and draft a ballot, which would then be presented to the people of Puerto Rico, who would vote in a referendum.The constitutional convention could precede a vote of Congress defining the status options or could follow it.If the convention preceded congressional action, the status options defined by the convention could take effect only with congressional approval.If Congress failed to provide such approval, the constitutional convention might need to reconvene to consider other options.If the constitutional convention followed congressional action, the convention could approve the congressionally defined status options or modify them, but any modification would then require further congressional approval.H.R.1230, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2007, proposed a process that included a constitutional convention.
Because 2012 is a year full electorally in Puerto Rico and the United States, the second query would be left in early 2013 and that would involve the formula that is winning on the first ballot and “territorial status” as described the first executive to the Commonwealth.
The PNP decided to not have the second plebiscite until 2013 because 2012 is a major election year both in the United States (President) and in Puerto Rico (Governor).
As expected, the PNP’s actions created some very strong reactions from the island’s other political groups.
The gubernatorial candidate for the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Alejandro García Padilla, said the intention of excluding the ELA in a vote this year demonstrated the “lack of seriousness and determination on the issue of status.”
He noted that nothing prevents the two plebiscites to be conducted this year, as proposed by the PDP.
“With the President pledging to present the results to Congress, the PNP cannot seriously justify neither the structure nor the separation proposed so wide of the two events,” said García Padilla.
“Just looking to create artificial and false appearance of support for statehood is worthless. And to postpone the second vote for the next two years, the Governor seeks only to remove the President and to wait to see if there is a change of government in the United States to return to the crooked ways of the past. The Popular Party strongly rejects the decision of the board of the PNP as an insult to Puerto Ricans who want this settled now and as a rebuke to a president who is committed to address this issue, “said the gubernatorial candidate.
Earlier today, García Padilla sounded more determined when he said the following at a PPD press conference: “The PPD will not stand idly by, we’re going to expose here and in Washington. The PNP has positioned itself as the party of tricks and deceptions.”
PPD Senator Eduardo Bhatia was very clear when saying that the PNP’s intentions to include the current ELA as a option is “illegitimate, anti-democratic, and has no validity.”
“The United States, since Congress and the White House and the people of Puerto Rico have been emphatic that the Commonwealth [ELA] must be included in any process of self-determination. Democracy can not be a half democracy, without all the options there is no democracy, “said Bhatia.
Julio Fontanet, the former president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association and spokesman for the United Sovereignty Movement (MUS) , focused on the political reality that the PNP is facing in the 2012 elections
“They are doing this process on the premise that their option will prevail in this first round, perhaps with the hope that it will strengthen their party in 2012 because they anticipate a big defeat, and that’s why they put the second round after the election,” said Fontanet.
As for comments from the island’s Independence Party (PIP), Fernando Martin, the PIP’s executive president, said the following:
“It is clear that this decision is a politically motivated move which is not intended or will result in accelerating the decolonization of Puerto Rico and it is being made by the New Progressive Party (NPP) to create an electoral advantage for the upcoming elections.”