***UPDATED 10:00 PM 4/30/10
The House passed on Thursday night the Puerto Rico Democracy Act (H.R. 2499). This would mandate the U.S. territory to vote on its status with the United States. (Roll Call Vote)
In a separate vote that was defeated 194 - 198 an amendment would have required English as the sole official language as a condition for Puerto Rican statehood.
The bill works in a two round vote. In the first round, Puerto Ricans would mark one of the following two options:
1) Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XX.
2) Puerto Rico should have a different political status. If you agree, mark here XX.
The bill, though, is created in favor of the island becoming the 51st state. If Puerto Ricans choose to change their status, they can opt for statehood, independence or to seek another “political association between sovereign nations.” If voters opt for statehood, Congress will then vote on whether to allow Puerto Rico into the Union as the 51st state.
However, an amendment proposed by Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican, was passed decisively and would allow supporters of the commonwealth status quo the option to vote their preference during the second round of the plebiscite. This amendment could very well change the game siphoning off statehood supporters in the second round of voting.
Every eight years, a plebiscite or a ballot question on the issue of the territory’s status would be asked of Puerto Ricans living on the island and of non resident native born Puerto Ricans living in the United States to vote on. This will happen until statehood is finally achieved for Puerto Rico.
However, Puerto Ricans have already made their voices heard on this issue numerous times since the late 1960’s. The Washington D.C. based advocacy group Pro English shows that the island has repeatedly voted to remain a commonwealth when votes were taken in 1967, 1993, and 1998. Furthermore, what is more concerning is the issue of non resident native Puerto Ricans being allowed to vote in future plebiscites. What exactly are the controls to identify who is a native Puerto Rican and who is not? Will officials ask for birth certificates or some kind of documentation to prove that an individual is originally from Puerto Rico? This situation is potentially rife for voter fraud.
“It’s true that the margin has shrunk over a period of time, so last time it was a couple of percentage points that separated statehood from commonwealth, but nevertheless, it shows that the Puerto Rican public is very divided over this issue,” says Pro English’s K.C. McAlpin.
“They say that this [votes by Puerto Ricans]is just an advisory vote, but their own statehood party platform says that if they get a majority vote then, they’re going to try to force Congress to seat their representatives, and go ahead and elect representatives and senators and demand their seats in Congress,” said Mr. McAlpin.
The circumstances go further. In the past, Puerto Ricans traditionally had the option to vote for independence, statehood, status quo, or remain a commonwealth. “In 1998, the statehood party thought they would be clever, because they couldn’t win a majority against the pro - commonwealth vote, so they actually had five options. They thought they could divide the pro-commonwealth vote,” said Mr. McAlpin.
“They had statehood, they had independence, and free association with the United States. They had commonwealth and they ‘had none of the above.’ They were trying to divide the vote, so they could at least get a plurality for statehood. The commonwealth people weren’t fooled, and they told their people to vote for ‘none of the above,’ and ‘none of the above won.’”
H.R. 2499, authored by Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood delegate to Congress Pedro Pierluisi, splits voting into two rounds.
The first round specifies a yes-or-no ballot on the current political status. If the “current,” for example commonwealth status doesn’t win a majority, there will be a second referendum.
However, in round two voters will have only two choices: statehood or full independence. So, commonwealth voters could outnumber statehood voters in round one but not get 50 percent. But in the second round they would have to choose between statehood and independence.
Puerto Rico may become a state in the future, but an issue that will continue to arise though is that of language. Both English and Spanish are official languages of Puerto Rico, and I asked Mr. Pierluisi about mandating English only at Puerto Rican government agencies and public schools. It appears the pro-statehood party is trying to appease both Puerto Ricans and American voters by saying that both languages will remain official languages of the island.
“We’re not there yet. The first step is to ask if the people support statehood,” said Mr. Pierluisi.”Once the majority requests statehood, then the congress will be the one considering that petition and including any reasonable conditions they want in place. By the way, the federal system works in Puerto Rico perfectly well in English.”
“Federal courts, federal agencies, and our local agencies. The way it works is, anybody who speaks English can go to local agencies, gets served, receives public services in English, and if they need English documents, they do that too. So that’s where we stand. We are both for English and Spanish. That shouldn’t be an issue here,” Mr. Pierluisi said.
It is an issue, however. This is not an issue of English optional but English only, and only 20 percent of Puerto Ricans can speak English fluently now. Other states will want to know in advance what the conditions are if Puerto Rico is admitted as a state. Would it have to operate in English like the rest of the fifty states? Will Puerto Rican public schools teach in English only like the other fifty states?
In it’s constitution, Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. However, by the time Hawaii was admitted into the Union in 1959, English was already becoming the more dominant language anyway. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric. Puerto Ricans are already considered to be American citizens who can freely come and go between the island and the states like all Americans. The issue here is representation in the House and Senate as well as voting in presidential elections.
Politically, Democrats would likely benefit should Puerto Rico become a state given the government dependent condition the island is already in and the demographics Democrats are catering to since their party is facing dire predictions come this November. A power grab indeed.