The Primary Takeaway From Puerto Rico’s Statehood Referendum

The Primary Takeaway From Puerto Rico’s Statehood Referendum June 12, 2017

Reports have been coming in waves over the last few days in the wake of the P.R. vote about the question of statehood and the opinions of the people of Puerto-Rico. Many of these articles, including one by NPR are frustratingly misleading and have some elements of click-bait. I wanted to take this time and use my platform to give my opinion on the non-binding vote/poll/referendum and explain why I label some of these articles as at least having elements of click-bait in them. Also: going to apologize for the length of this post, because originally it was not going to be this long. But I wanted to make comprehensive points about the referendum and explain it substantially to any readers who’ve seen the click-baity headlines and articles about this.

The only real image I could use in the wake of the referendum.
The only real image I could use in the wake of the referendum.

The History Of The Statehood Question And The Latest Referendum:

Puerto Rico’s been a part of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American war. That’s a while. We’ve been part of the United States since before Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii became states. Puerto-Ricans have been citizens of the United States since the passing of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917 but even this was complicated and made confusing by the question of whether or not Puerto-Rico ought to be a state.

Have you heard of Balzac V. Porto Rico? It’s an infamous Supreme Court case taking place in 1922 where a Puerto-Rican journalist was accused of libel and denied a trial by jury due to Puerto-Rico’s criminal procedure at the time not granting a jury trial when it came to misdemeanor charges. The reason this is connected to the statehood question is because of the decision of the Supreme Court. It agreed with the decision of the lower courts, which were that territories belonging to the United States but were not incorporated did not have to apply the provisions of the Constitution, one of which is that all accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public by an impartial jury. In case you’re curious Puerto-Rico is still considered an unincorporated territory even to this day. Being a commonwealth does not make it incorporated, even though a lawsuit filed in 2014 attempted to change that.

Various referendums have allowed Puerto-Ricans to vote on what direction they’d like to see Puerto-Rico move in relative to the question of Puerto Rico’s future. The first of these occurred in 1967 wherein the majority of voters voted for Puerto-Rico to remain a commonwealth of the United States. In this instance statehood got second place, with over half of the votes going to commonwealth status, and the overall referendum getting 65.9% of voters to turnout. The next time this took place was in late 1993 with an even higher turnout of 73.5% and commonwealth status winning a narrow victory of 48.6% and statehood losing through gaining 46.3% of the vote. The next vote would take place in 1998 and statehood would lose by a somewhat bigger margin to the final option of “none of the above” wherein “none of the above” won 50.5% of the vote and statehood would obtain 46.6% of the vote. This referendum also obtained a majority of voter turnout with 71.3% showing up to reveal their opinions.

Things would change with the beginning of a new millennium. The next time a referendum would take place would be in 2012 and for the first time, through a two question survey someone could argue that a majority of voters had in someway voted for statehood. The two question poll started off by asking if participants wanted Puerto-Rico to maintain its current status (the majority of participants said no, they didn’t want a continuation of the status quo) and then asked participants their preferred status (the majority of participants stated that they preferred statehood). Fascinatingly this referendum actually got the highest turnout of all: 78%. Sadly when it came to the 2nd question over 25% of the choices were considered invalid which complicated the reactions to it. But this is an important referendum and not just because it’s the most recent but also because of the massive turnout.

The most recent referendum took place yesterday, June 11th. This should be disappointing for statehood supporters even though to classify this as a victory for them isn’t technically inaccurate. This referendum allowed participants to select 3 options: statehood, independence/free association, or the status quo. A record-shattering decision took place with statehood absolutely dominating this referendum but with a dismal turnout of 23% voter participation. With such a low turnout it’s easy and in fact probably the correct choice for legislators to look at this and ignore it when considering whether or not the people of Puerto-Rico actually want statehood.

Opinion Time:

There’s some context casual observers of this referendum need to understand. The low participant turnout can be partially attributed to a boycott led by Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party who dislike the wording of the referendum, thanks to relatively recent changes which took place a few weeks ago in the wake of a rejection from the Department of Justice of the United States in regards to the language of the plebiscite. Part of the reason why the statehood supporters turned out in such large numbers might well be due to the current administration, the Rossello administration strongly pushing for participation in this referendum. Governor Ricky Rossello is one such figure who pushed for participation in the referendum, himself tweeting showing his participation in it last night. His party, the New Progressive Party, supports statehood.

In my opinion there is a significant enthusiasm gap at play which influenced participant turnout. Supporters of the status quo didn’t turn out at all, and people who want independence have at least according to the referendums always been a small percentage of the population. To claim this as a serious victory for statehood supporters is a bit misleading although as I’ve noted previously it’s difficult to say that it’s technically inaccurate even if as a nonbinding referendum it is little more than a glorified opinion poll.

This reminds me of the North Carolina Senator who once got heat for claiming that North Carolinians didn’t support marriage equality in 2014 because of voter turnout for a constitutional amendment to NC’s constitution in which 60.1% of VOTERS who voted in that election a certain way. That was another example of an enthusiasm gap at play.

It’s difficult to gain a serious opinion of the opinion of Puerto-Ricans in Puerto-Rico because of this referendum. I’m operating under the assumption that a good number of statehood supporters turned out to participate in this poll but I want to warn people against assuming that this is every single or even a majority of statehood supporters. We don’t know enough to make that claim at this moment.

Any articles that claim “Puerto-Ricans voted for statehood” are technically accurate when solely considering voters/participants BUT inaccurate in the sweeping generalizations they make about Puerto-Ricans as a whole. A more accurate headline would be “Puerto-Rican statehood supporters turn to the polls in the middle of a political boycott and low voter turnout in general”. Or “Statehood supporters go to the polls while others silently watch”. In case you can’t tell: I’m less than pleased with how this has been covered by the media. There’s lots of clickbait out there and it needs to be called out. Examples of such clickbait include the statements of the governor, an ABC article, an article from The Hill, and a New York Times headline. Please note these articles get better in reading but they use tricky titles to draw readers in which is frustrating for me as an opinionated commentator who has had private conversations about this with many friends and family members.

Analyzing The Statements Of The Governor:

I watched the video of the Governor who tweeted it out minutes ago and wanted to take time to respond to it. A few of these insights will be humorous (like why did the video start before the Governor walked to the podium?) and others will be considerably more serious. Right off the bat our most gracious governor is wrong: a pathetic amount of our voters turned out to support him and other statehood movement leaders, not an overwhelming majority of voters. 22% of voters voting for you is not a victory, even if it technically meant that him and his allies supported the most popular option given.

The “strong and clear message” the governor mentions is that Puerto-Ricans don’t care enough about this topic to turnout in significant numbers. Not that “Puerto-Rico wants to be a state!” which even if it were true isn’t really enough of a reason to make Puerto-Rico a state anyway, especially not in the eyes of the people it will need to convince: legislators in the United States and the President of the United States.

Governor Rossello is correct about how the relationship between Puerto-Rico and the United States is an improper one but this referendum is not going to get us any closer to correcting that given the terrible voter turnout the referendum had. The next issue is that we don’t know how the majority of U.S. citizens in Puerto-Rico feels, especially because this poll didn’t include them. You cannot seriously claim to have an understanding of the majority opinion on an issue where turnout to register how people feel about it is 23%.

Governor Rossello ignores his previous logic about a strong and clear message and the will of the people when he starts to talk about the “majority that participates” towards the end of the video. He’s trying to strengthen his case, but he ignores that people not participating sends a message. Admittedly it’s a weird message to send but it’s still a message especially when its 77% of the people who had the right to voice an opinion, who voice it through silence.

Governor Rossello should have centered his statements around the idea that participation is what determines results in an election, a vote, or a referendum, but he didn’t. Not until the end of his statements and that significantly weakens them because he was starting off confident that he grasped the will of the people. At most what he grasped was the will of the enthusiastic supporters of statehood, which probably isn’t even all statehood supporters.

As A Final Note:

If you like what I wrote here, consider becoming a patreon of mine and helping me write even more researched and opinionated analysis and make a living as a full-time writer. I recently graduated from college and I’d greatly appreciate the support.

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