By: Aaron Barden
Before this blog post begins, I would feel remiss and disingenuous if I did not remind the reader of the humanitarian crisis currently happening on the island of Puerto Rico, full of 3.5 million American citizens, as it continues to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. I also would suggest that anyone clicking these links use a web browser with a translate webpage tool.
Earlier this year, Puerto Rico had its fifth referendum regarding its political status. In a strange turn of events, the turnout, which is often much higher than any other state, was an abysmal 23%. Of that small percentage of the island, 97% voted in favor of statehood, the position supported by the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, PNP). The reason behind the abnormally low turnout rate for the island was the push for a boycott by the two opposition parties: El Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, PPD) in favor of enhanced commonwealth status and El Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party, PIP) in favor of independence from the United States.
In Puerto Rico, these three are the major parties with one other minor party, El Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (The Working People’s Party, PPT). The major parties are split up based upon the political status options for Puerto Rico, but how can the island support three major parties and another minor party when the rest of the United States can only support two?
The reason: Puerto Rico’s electoral system. In its local legislature, Article III the Constitution of Puerto Rico sets up a twenty-seven member Senate and a fifty-one member House of Representatives. The island is then split into eight senate districts, each electing two Senators, and forty representative districts, each electing one Representative. In addition to this district make-up, eleven Senators and eleven Representatives are elected in an at-large election.
Following an interesting combination of multimember districts, semi-partisan redistricting, and island-wide at-large elections, an even more unusual practice (for the United States) takes place. Enshrined in the Puerto Rican Constitution is something that the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed is not a right: proportional representation.
Basically, the election results are gathered, and the number of legislative seats gained by each party for are compared with the votes cast by each party for Governor. If one party gets more than two-thirds of the seats in either or both houses with less than two-thirds of gubernatorial votes, the minority party is given up to nine senatorial and seventeen representative seats. Assuming (safely given Puerto Rico’s multi-party structure) that there is more than one minority party, those nine and seventeen seats are divvied up in proportion to the number of votes cast by each minority party for Governor. Alternatively, if a party gains two-thirds of the legislative seats in either or both houses and of the gubernatorial votes cast and the minority party does not gain seats proportional to its votes for Governor, they shall be given additional seats to get them as near to proportionality as possible. The seats given to the minority parties are first taken from the at-large elections then from the districts in order of greatest proportion received.
It is through this semi-complicated system that Puerto Rico’s multi-party structure survives. For example, in the 2016 legislative elections, the PNP received twenty-one seats in the Senate and thirty-four in the House, which is more than two-thirds. It won fifteen of the sixteen available district seats in the Senate and six of the fourteen at-large. The remaining district seat in the Senate went to the PPD, and the at-large seats were split six to the PPD, one to the PIP, and one to an independent. The seventeen remaining seats in the House were split up sixteen to the PPD (twelve from districts, four from at-large) and one to the PIP (from the at-large). In the 2016 gubernatorial election, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, the PNP candidate, received 41.8% of the vote, which is decidedly less than two-thirds. As such, three of the PPD’s six seats were awarded to them through the system outlined above.
While, admittedly, the election results since 1968 would seem to look like a two-party system, the PIP is viewed as an important third major party by those on the island. The reason behind the parties being split in this fashion has less to do with the electoral system, or even the parties themselves, and much more to do with the unresolved issue of Puerto Rico’s political status within the United States. As mentioned above, the three major parties in Puerto Rico line up with the three status alternatives available to the island: statehood, enhanced commonwealth status, and independence. Generally speaking, the independence movement has been important to the island but has never achieved more than 5.49% of the referendum votes with the remainder split between statehood and commonwealth status, so its lack of referenda votes likely translates to its lack of legislative seats. The electoral system in Puerto Rico, when taken together, allows for the survival of more than one party while the first-past-the-post system on the mainland only sustains the two major parties.
But once the political parties shift away from the status question and the parties are more reflective of policy, what will become of the parties ideologically? As it stands now, the PNP is the more conservative party, the PPD is left of center, and the PPT and PIP are both more left than that. It has been pointed out that any attempt to guess at the island’s political leanings is difficult, just as it has been with other territories past, but those guesses have been based on whether the island will be Democratic or Republican were it to become a state. No matter what status option is chosen, I doubt we will see the island adopt the mainland’s two-party system. As such, I predict that the proportional representation put in place by the island’s electoral system will have a more even split of the parties, once the status issue is put to bed.
(Photo credit: the author, Aaron Barden)