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Pierluisi: Puerto Rico People Vote for Change — and Statehood

Ex-Puerto Rico Gov. Rafael Hernández Colon wrote a Guest Observer (“Puerto Rican Statehood Defeated Again,” Dec. 6) about the results of the U.S. territory’s recent status referendum, arguing that “the Puerto Rican electorate defeated statehood.” The truth is far different. The former governor avoided a straightforward description of the referendum results because they were disastrous for the pro-status-quo party he once led.

The ballot consisted of two questions. In the first question, voters were asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a territory. Under this status, the 3.7 million American citizens residing in Puerto Rico cannot vote for the leaders who make their national laws, and are treated unequally under those laws.

Over 1.7 million people answered this first question, which is about 75 percent of registered voters on the island. Fifty-four percent said they did not want the current status to continue, while 46 percent said they did. Mr. Hernández Colon’s piece makes no reference to this crucial fact. Instead, the ex-governor ignores the results of the first question completely.

Those voting against the current status included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of independence and nationhood in free association with the U.S. These three groups have different visions for Puerto Rico’s future, but are united in their opposition to the current status, which is colonial in nature. None of my stateside colleagues in Congress would accept this status for their constituents, so they should respect that my constituents no longer accept it either.

After this vote, the question is not whether, but when, Puerto Rico will cease to be a territory and will have a democratic and dignified status — either as a state or as a nation. Defenders of the status quo will seek to obstruct change in the short term, and their initial tactic is to distort the results of the referendum. But in a democracy the will of the people ultimately prevails.

Let me turn to the second question in the referendum, where voters expressed their preference among the viable alternatives to the current status. Over 1.3 million people chose an option. Sixty-one percent voted for statehood; 33 percent for free association; and 5.5 percent for independence.

Critically, the 824,000-plus votes for statehood exceed the 817,000 votes for the current status on the first question. For the first time ever, more people in Puerto Rico want to be a state — the status I support — than to continue as a territory. This fact reveals the “statehood was defeated” thesis to be mere wishful thinking on the ex-governor’s part.

Mr. Hernández-Colon and others seek to downplay the results of the second question by noting that 480,000 voters did not provide an answer, but this argument falls flat. In our democracy, outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. Power rests with the citizen who votes, not the one who declines to choose from among the options provided. That is because it is impossible to divine voter intent from a blank ballot.

We can speculate that some voters left the second question blank because they prefer the current status to its alternatives. Those voters were able to vote for the current status in the first question, so their viewpoint was reflected in the results. Others may have declined to answer because they thought another option should have been on the ballot—a best-of-all-worlds proposal promoted by the ex-governor’s party called “Enhanced Commonwealth.” But the last four presidential administrations have rejected this proposal, as have all key congressional leaders. A blank vote to protest the exclusion of an impossible proposal is entitled to no weight.

In a statement earlier this week, a White House spokesman said: “[T]he results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood in the second question. Now it is time for Congress to act and the Administration will work with them on that effort, so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”

The White House is right. The referendum shows a clear majority of Puerto Ricans want to end the Island’s undemocratic status, and that more voters favor statehood than any other status option. Now the federal government should respond in a timely and appropriate fashion.

Pedro R. Pierluisi, a Democrat, is Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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