Analysis: The Puerto Rico Plebiscite That Wasn't

PHOTO: A pro-statehood New Progressive Party supporter waves the U.S. flag during the partys closing campaign rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012.

Puerto Ricans like to say that politics is the national sport, and who could argue with that? With a participation rate hovering near 80% and campaigning that features elaborate floats, loud music, and a carnival atmosphere, election day on the island comes off like a mix between Super Bowl Sunday and Mardi Gras. So when the results came in this week that a majority island voters had selected the statehood option on this year's plebiscite, it would seem to be an unprecedented, game-changing event.

After all, in two of the three previous plebiscites, Commonwealth--the current status, which supporters call "free associated state" and detractors call "colony,"--was the clear winner. When the dust cleared and the 2012 tally was in, the numbers were striking: 61.2% of 1.8 million voters said they were in favor of statehood! The world would hold its breath to see if Congress could allow a 51st star would be added to Old Glory.

But it's not quite that simple. This was not your everyday straightforward plebiscite with Statehood, Commonwealth, and Independence (remember that?) options. It came out of a tortured political process that involved consultation with the President's Puerto Rico Task Force and in the end was never authorized by Congress. The plebiscite that Puerto Ricans voted for Tuesday involved a two-step process.

The first part of the vote asked "Are you satisfied with the current territorial status?" On that question, 54% voted no. Keep in mind that if you voted no here, you weren't necessarily against Commonwealth per se, you simply weren't satisfied with the current version of Commonwealth. The second question was "Which status do you prefer?" and the choices were Statehood, "Sovereign Free Associated State" (an as yet undetermined non-territorial hybrid of commonwealth and independence), and Independence.

This vote went to Statehood (61.5%), with "Sovereign Free Associated State" winning 33.3% of the vote and Independence 5.5%. A clear victory, right? Not exactly. During the campaign leading up to the vote the Popular Democratic Party, which represents the Commonwealth option, had been urging their followers to simply enter a blank vote in protest of the way the plebiscite was constructed, in their opinion to favor the statehood-supporting New Progressive Party.

So if you factor in the 466, 337 blank votes, Statehood only wins 45.1% of the total votes, and if you add the Sovereign Free Associated State and the blank ballots together, that would come to 51% of the votes, in other words, the same result of the plebiscites held in 1967 and 1993. In fact, it's almost a mirror image of the 1998 plebiscite, which was won by "None of the Above," the option campaigned for by the PDP in protest of that statehood-party authored plebiscite, by a margin of 50.3% to 46.5%.

To complicate matters even further, Luis Fortuño, the incumbent pro-statehood governor, was shockingly defeated by his Commonwealth party rival Alejandro García Padilla, leaving the statehood victory without its primary advocate. "This was first and foremost just an opinion poll that was never a binding resolution," said William Ramirez, head of the ACLU in Puerto Rico. "It's up to the party in power to go to Washington and slap it on someone's desk and fight for it."

In fact, all that incoming governor García Padilla is obliged to do under the law is send a letter to Washington stating the results. It can be argued that even if Fortuño won, he would have faced difficulty explaining why statehood should be considered when the option won only a plurality and not an absolute majority (over 50%) of the votes.

It is conceivable that Pedro Pierluisi, the island's incumbent resident commissioner (non-voting member of Congress), who is not only pro-statehood but a member of the Democratic Party with ties to Obama, might be able to argue the case, but that seems dubious given the absence of power of his office. Pierlusi was running again as running mate to Fortuño (who is staunchly Republican). He was re-elected to Resident Commissioner. A recent paper published by Latino Decisions in anticipation of Tuesday's vote states that "lawmakers are not likely to accept the outcomes of a status plebiscite that was not authorized by Congress."

For his part García Padilla has already announced that he will hold a Constitutional Convention in Puerto Rico in 2014 and seek a new plebiscite that would be approved by Congress.

Still, the incoming governor would do well to address the dissatisfaction with the current status that has been expressed by a majority of Puerto Ricans. Certainly the trend over the last several years has been disenchantment with Commonwealth. But it remains to be seen what Statehood supporters really want.

While Fortuño became infamous for implementing hardline budget-cutting policies applauded by right-wing Republicans like Grover Norquist, he was also constantly seeking Federal funds from Washington, whether it was from the Stimulus or making sure Puerto Rico would be covered by Obamacare.

Given the tendency of many statehooders, including their last governor Pedro Roselló, to align themselves with the US Democratic Party, it seems they might be in search of not so much family values and cutting government jobs than equal rights and entitlements as US citizens. Now that the island's economy is in its sixth year of recession, the ambivalent status of Commonwealth doesn't seem enough to guarantee the island's future. It's this tricky equation that seems to best explain Fortuño's unexpected defeat and statehood's increasing popularity.

Of course Puerto Rico's desire for a stronger safety net through statehood is precisely what would be met with great opposition in the increasing cost-cutting atmosphere of the US Congress. In the end, the island's fate is entirely up to the deciding power of that legislative body, not its own.

Maybe what Puerto Ricans should be focused on is not statehood, commonwealth, or independence. It's self-determination, the real, unrestricted right to control its own destiny.

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