In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act granting Puerto Ricans American citizenship. Last June 11th Puerto Rico held its sixth plebiscite (popular vote) on altering its territorial relationship with the United States. This was Puerto Rico’s fifth plebiscite on this issue in twenty-six years. While 97% voted in favor of Puerto Rican statehood, as a result of political boycotts, only 23% of the eligible voters participated. Voter turnout in previous plebiscites ranged from 60% to 78%.
None of this bodes well for supporters of Puerto Rican statehood. Opponents to Puerto Rican statehood argue the vote is illegitimate, in part due to the original wording of the ballot, as well as the low voter turnout. In order to qualify for federal funding the ballot had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department called the first draft of the ballot “ambiguous and potentially misleading” as it only allowed votes for statehood or independence with no reference to retaining Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. The Puerto Rican legislature amended the ballot as requested by the DOJ. However, Puerto Rico’s decided to hold the referendum instead of allowing the DOJ to review the changes.
An additional hurdle to Puerto Rico’s statehood is its status as a United States territory. The thirty-seven territories, which later became states, were all annexed as part of the U.S. with the understanding that they would gain statehood. The Northwest Ordinance laid out the procedures for governance and eventual statehood. However, the United States acquired Puerto Rico after the Spanish American War and viewed Puerto Rico as a colonial possession with no plan to provide future statehood.
Even if its citizens want statehood, Puerto Rico is unlikely become the 51st state in the foreseeable future. With an already racially divided electorate on the mainland, some argue that Republicans, in control of Congress, are unlikely to admit an overwhelmingly Hispanic and Spanish speaking state that potentially leans blue.
Puerto Rico’s lack of statehood has significantly influenced its relationship with the rest of the United States and impeded the voting rights of Puerto Rican residents. A recent poll by the N.Y. Times shows that roughly half of Americans are unaware people born in Puerto Rico are naturally-born U.S. citizens. Moreover, the 3.4 million people living in Puerto Rico lack voting representation in the federal government. The U.S. Constitution apportions Congressional representation to “Members . . . of the several States”, not territories. Like other unincorporated territories Puerto Rico has just a single non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Additionally, U.S. Presidents are elected from electors chosen by the States. While Puerto Rican residents are provided the opportunity to participate in party presidential primaries, they are not able to vote in Presidential elections. Advocates for Puerto Rican voting rights argue Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory has effectively disenfranchised 2.3 million U.S. citizens of voting age. This federal disenfranchisement not only affects citizens of Puerto Rico, it can also affect Puerto Rican residents who are citizens of other U.S. States.
Because of their lack of national representation Puerto Rican citizens have a vastly different relationship with the Federal Government than their mainland counterparts. One benefit of this relationship is that Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax for income earned from sources in Puerto Rico. However, Puerto Rico receives less federal funding than it would as U.S. States for Medicare, Medicaid, and its residents do not qualify for SSI. For example, due to its territorial status, Puerto Rico only receives a 55% federal match rate for Medicaid funding whereas U.S. States with similar incomes receive as much as 76%. This disparity in federal funding could be attributed to Puerto Rico’s lack of voting representation in Congress.
For now it is unlikely that the 2017 referendum will have any effect on Puerto Rico’s status and the federal voting rights of its 3.4 million residents. Which is unfortunate given full voting representation in the Federal Government might improve the economic situation of Puerto Rico and raise public awareness that Puerto Ricans are also Americans. Awareness which appears directly linked to Americans’ willingness and desire to provide emergency relief to the island.