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Puerto Rican Statehood Defeated Again

Governing party’s misleading ballot obscures fact that the majority rejects statehood

Please forgive me, but as we are pleased to be putting this year’s campaign season behind us, I’d like to paraphrase one of the most cynical political quotes of all time: “It’s not the people who vote that count; it’s how the votes are counted.”

No, I’m not trying to raise conspiracy theories about Ohio, North Carolina or even Florida. The beauty of our democracy is that once the final tallies are compiled and certified, win or lose, we accept the results as the will of the people. Voters are thanked. A concession speech is (eventually) given. We prepare for the next time.

Official election results — no matter how slim the margin of victory — are accepted as objective facts.

In Puerto Rico, we just elected a dynamic new governor. Gov.-elect Alejandro Garcia Padilla defeated the incumbent by 13,000 votes out of more than 1.8 million cast. It may not have been a landslide, but facts are facts.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case in the Puerto Rican election that made bigger headlines on the American mainland. For the fourth time in the last 55 years, Puerto Ricans voted on the status of our relationship with the United States federal government. All the votes have been tallied and the official results have been released. But neither side is conceding in this one. How the votes are counted makes all the difference.

So what actually happened Nov. 6? For the fourth straight time, the Puerto Rican electorate defeated statehood. A 46-percent minority voted in favor of becoming the 51st state and a 54-percent majority opposed it. Of course, you would not know this based on the “official” results because the plebiscite was deliberately structured to validate one point of view.

Advocates for statehood know that support for their position has not grown since the 1980s, when I led the pro-commonwealth party. (Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth under a compact with the United States since 1950, with complete local self-government, subject to U.S. federal law.) In Puerto Rico’s two most recent status referendums, in 1993 and 1998, support for statehood was the same 46 percent we saw this year.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have declared they will respect the political will of the Puerto Rican people. Before the vote, President Barack Obama said, “If the plebiscite, or the referendum, that takes place in Puerto Rico indicates that there is a strong preference from the majority of the Puerto Rican people, I think that will influence how Congress approaches any actions that might be taken to address status issues.”

The fact remains that there is not a strong preference from the majority of the Puerto Rican people for statehood.

Faced with this reality, the pro-statehood governing party prepared a misleading two-part ballot and didn’t present voters with adequate alternatives to statehood — such as remaining a commonwealth. Commonwealth supporters were advised to leave that portion of the ballot blank. Instead of counting the blank ballots in the anti-statehood tally, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood-party-controlled election board invalidated all 472,674 of them. Another 17,764 ballots were thrown out for other reasons.

How those votes are counted is the difference between Puerto Rican statehood winning 46 percent or 61 percent of the vote.

When advocates tout the results of the latest plebiscite as an argument for making Puerto Rico the 51st state, Congress should consider whether the process truly was an example of U.S.-style democracy. The facts say it was not.

Rafael Hernández Colon served as governor of Puerto Rico from 1972 to 1976 and from 1984 to 1992.

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