The Case for 51

On November 6, 2012, while the rest of the country was transfixed by the presidential election, the 3.7 million residents of the American territory of Puerto Rico were focused on their own historic election. In addition to voting for Governor, non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress, and members of the local legislature, Boricua voters also had the opportunity to vote on a referendum to determine the future of the island’s relationship to the United States.

The referendum was split into two questions: the first asking whether or not to maintain territorial “Commonwealth” status, while the second asked which non-territorial status voters preferred. The non-territorial statuses offered—statehood, full independence, and “Free Association” between the US and Puerto Rico similar to the status of the Marshall Islands—were those that had been previously approved by commissions appointed by each of the last four presidential administrations.

Turnout for the status referendum was a historically high 75%, and the results of the first question were a decisive and unprecedented 54-46 rejection of the status quo. Furthermore, defying the expectations of two previous HPR writers, statehood garnered 61% of the vote in the second question. Statehood supporting Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierliusi (D, NPP-PR) and Governor Luis Fortuño (R, NPP-PR) plan on submitting a bill admitting Puerto Rico to the Union to Washington before the 113th Congress is seated in January. If everything goes according to plan, a 51-star flag will be raised over the Capitol on July 4, 2013.

Despite the clear results, opponents of statehood claim that the fight is not yet over. Many make the claim that because 25% of eligible voters left the second question blank, the results cannot be seen as binding. The flaws in this argument are obvious, as not voting is not the same as voting against the winning side, and turnout for the second question without the abstentions was still a majority of eligible voters.

The pro-status quo party PDP argues that the blank votes should all be considered part of a protest campaign against the second question, claiming that their preferred “Enhanced Commonwealth” option was left off the ballot. The problem with this argument is that “Enhanced Commonwealth”, defined by the PDP as a variant of the status quo where self-rule cannot be terminated unilaterally by the Federal government, is invalid under the territorial clause of the US Constitution, as indicated by commissions established by the Bush and Obama administrations. Sovereign Free Association, a constitutionally valid version of “Enhanced Commonwealth” which would have allowed for permanent self-rule but permitted Puerto Rico to continue to participate in many of the Federal programs it does now—like FEMA, Social Security, and defense—was on the ballot, but the PDP refused to endorse it. Even if these arguments are taken into account, the raw total voting for statehood in the second question exceeded the number voting to support the status quo in the first; even if “Enhanced Commonwealth” had been included in the second question, it would have still lost out to statehood.

Anti-statehood activists have also pushed the argument that the defeat of pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuno by PDP candidate Alejandro Padilla signals the strength of the anti-statehood position, but this misreads Padilla’s mandate. Padilla’s victory was by a razor-thin margin of .7%, or just over 13,000 votes. Additionally, Fortuño—Puerto Rico’s first Republican Governor in generations—spent his term pursuing unpopular economic reforms. The Padilla campaign focused on this and Fortuño’s perceived softness on crime, rather than spending any time discussing the statehood issue. The fact that Pedro Pierliusi, a fiscally moderate Democrat allied with Fortuño on the statehood issue, won re-election (with more votes than Padilla) as Resident Commissioner to Washington, DC should put a lid on the “mandate” argument. Pierliusi is, after all, the man ultimately responsible for submitting Puerto Rico’s statehood petition to Congress.

Perhaps recognizing that their other arguments lack merit, opponents of Puerto Rican statehood have taken to arguing that the GOP-controlled House would never permit the admission of a majority Spanish-speaking state to the union. This argument seems to ignore the fact that the most ardent opponents of Puerto Rican statehood in the House are mainland-born Puerto Rican Democrats. It also seems to disregard that a House bill submitted in 2009 by then-Commissioner Fortuño—authorizing a version of the referendum that ultimately took place—passed the House with bipartisan support (co-sponsors included future Tea Party favorites Marsha Blackburn and Eric Cantor) before dying in Harry Reid’s Democratic supermajority Senate. Additionally, given the GOP’s huge defeat among Hispanics in the General Election, the Republican Party can hardly afford to be seen as opposing the interests of America’s largest ethnic minority group.

If all else fails, Pierliusi can always argue that private demand for 51-star flags to replace the 50-star versions that have been flying outside homes for 53 years could create thousands of “shovel-ready” jobs without the need for a cent in tax increases.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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