Puerto Ricans Fight for Right to Vote

B O S T O N, Oct. 5, 2000 -- The United States sought today to deny Puerto Rico’s 2.4 million registered U.S. voters their newly awarded right to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

“The Commonwealth [of Puerto Rico] is not a state. … The citizens of Puerto Rico do not have the constitutional right to vote for the president and vice president of the United States,” Department of Justice attorney Matthew Collette argued before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The federal government is seeking to have thrown out an August ruling by U.S. District Judge Jaime Pieras that found Puerto Rico residents were illegally denied the right to vote in presidential elections.

“Only citizens of communist Cuba and the American citizens of Puerto Rico cannot vote” for their national leaders in this hemisphere, attorney Gregorio Igartua de la Rosa, the lead plaintiff, told the three-judge panel.

Residents of the self-governing Caribbean commonwealth are U.S. citizens, but do not pay U.S. income taxes. They can vote in the island’s presidential primary, but not in the Nov. 7 presidential election.

The commonwealth joined Igartua, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and other citizens of Puerto Rico, as an intervening party.

Puerto Rico’s Solicitor General Gustavo Gelpi argued the fundamental right to vote was based “not on territory, but on citizenship.”

The U.S. Constitution, he noted, had been expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries to allow blacks and women the right to vote. Originally only white male property owners who paid taxes could vote.

Puerto Rico Prepares for Nov. 7

But the federal government argued Puerto Rico, which became part of the United States in 1898 when Spain surrendered it, had two methods of gaining the vote for its citizenship: become a state or follow the same path as the District of Columbia and have a constitutional amendment passed.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello told reporters outside the courtroom that “those are two procedures; this could be a third.”

Meanwhile the Spanish-speaking island is going ahead with preparations to vote.

“We, under state law, will hold the presidential ballot … and we will go to whatever forum we have to go to to make sure that those votes are counted,” Rossello said, adding Puerto Rico would have eight Electoral College votes — more than 25 other states.

The proponents of Puerto Rico’s right to vote in the presidential election said they would press their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.