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Puerto Rico and Federal Status Legislation, 1952-2012

Puerto Rico and Federal Status Legislation, 1952-2012

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On November 6, the residents of Puerto Rico will have an opportunity to vote in local island-wide general elections and a status plebiscite. The 2012 plebiscite provides electors with a two-stage vote on the future status of the island. The first stage asks electors to choose between continuing the present Commonwealth or territorial status (Yes) and changing it (No). The second stage provides electors with a choice among three alternative status options, namely statehood, independence, and a non-territorial relationship described as a ‘Sovereign Free Associated State’ . Like prior status laws enacted by the Puerto Rican legislature in 1993 and 1998, this plebiscite is not authorized by Congress and is non-binding on the Federal government.

The United States has governed Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory for more than a century. Between 1898 and 1901, the United States created a new territorial status enabling the Federal government to selectively govern Puerto Rico as a foreign country for domestic or constitutional purposes. In 1950, Congress enabled Puerto Ricans to draft a local constitution and subsequently submit it to an island-wide referendum. In 1952, after a contentious parliamentary process, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of the new constitution and the establishment of a ‘Free Associated State,’ loosely translated as a Commonwealth. While the new constitution provided for greater local self-government and administrative autonomy, Congress unequivocally established that the new political arrangement did not change the territorial or constitutional status of Puerto Rico.

After 1952, Puerto Rican electors have gone to the polls on three occasions to vote in a status plebiscite. In 1967, Congress enacted Federal legislation authorizing the government of Puerto Rico to hold a plebiscite and enabled the island’s residents to choose among three status options, namely affirming the Commonwealth status, choosing statehood, and/or independence. A majority of electors voted to affirm the Commonwealth status (60.4%) over the statehood (39%) and independence (0.6%) options. Puerto Rican lawmakers subsequently enacted legislation providing for two additional status plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 without congressional authorization. Although no status option garnered a clear majority of the votes in the 1993 plebiscite, the Commonwealth (48.6%) option received more votes than the statehood (46.3%) and the independence (4.4%) options. Subsequently the leadership of the Puerto Rican Popular Democratic Party (PPD) or the Commonwealth party capitalized on popular anger at the pro-Statehood government for wasting money on a plebiscite and organized a boycott of the 1998 plebiscite mobilizing voters to choose the ‘None of the above’ option. A combination of the PPD’s campaign and below average turnout enabled the “None of the above” option to get 50.3% of the vote effectively nullifying the outcome of the plebiscite
Simultaneously, since 1952 Federal lawmakers introduced, debated, and in some cases voted on, 68 additional status and plebiscitary bills.

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