Puerto Ricans Sue to Vote in Election

B O S T O N, Oct. 5, 2000 -- It’s an issue that has been debated for years: Though Puerto Ricans can vote in the presidential primaries, they cannot vote in the general election.

Now, a federal appeals court is being asked to change that — a request that, if granted, would let 2.4 million voters in Puerto Rico help choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

“Everything the president does affects us also in the same way it affects you. So if we have the same at stake and you can vote, why not we? We are American citizens as you are,” said Gregorio Igartua, who is one of the 11 plaintiffs as well as the lawyer for the group of Puerto Ricans who filed the suit.

The plaintiffs argue they are being denied a right available to other U.S. citizens. But the Justice Department maintains the U.S. Constitution allows electors for the Electoral College to be picked only by those who live in states, not by those in U.S. territories.

“The remedy, we believe, cannot come through the courts, but we believe the remedy would have to come through the legislative process,” Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said.

Arguments in the case were scheduled to be heard today by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases from Puerto Rico. The Justice Department asked the court to make a speedy ruling.

Puerto Rico Could Tip Election

Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens in 1917. The territory has 3.5 million residents. Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland United States can vote in the presidential election. People who move from the mainland to Puerto Rico can no longer vote.

“The argument is that voting in a democracy, particularly in the United States, is a fundamental right of citizenship,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello, whose government agrees with the plaintiffs.

If the court rules in favor of allowing Puerto Ricans to vote in the Nov. 7 election, Rossello said Puerto Rico could have eight electoral votes, as many as Connecticut.

Nonpartisan political activist Stuart Rothenberg said those votes could be crucial.

“Politically, giving eight electoral votes to Puerto Rico could be the difference in the 2000 elections. The contest looks to be that close. In any case, it would change the Bush and Gore strategies,” he said.

Rothenberg said he believes Puerto Ricans would vote Democratic if they were allowed to take part in the election.

In August, a federal judge in Puerto Rico declared that the right to vote is a fundamental right of U.S. citizenship. The Justice Department appealed, noting that the appeals court in Boston dismissed a similar ruling in 1994.

Ken Lisaius, a Bush campaign spokesman, said the candidate would have no comment because the case is pending. Nor would the Bush campaign speculate on how Puerto Ricans would vote if they could.

A spokesman for the Gore campaign did not return a telephone call seeking comment.