07 November 2012

Puerto Rico May Seek Statehood

A majority of voters in the predominantly Spanish speaking Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, who are U.S. citizens subject to federal law, who have considerable autonomy and don't pay most U.S. taxes on Puerto Rican source income, but have no representative in Congress and no say in the Presidential election, have voted to seek to become a U.S. State in a non-binding referendum. Puerto Rico does send a "resident commissioner" to the U.S. House of Representatives, but the commissioner does not have a floor vote.

The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo. Ninety-six percent of 1,643 precincts were reporting as of early Wednesday.

The second question asked voters to choose from three options, with statehood by far the favorite, garnering 61 percent. Sovereign free association, which would have allowed for more autonomy, received 33 percent, while independence got 5 percent.

President Barack Obama earlier expressed support for the referendum and pledged to respect the will of the people in the event of a clear majority.

It is unclear whether U.S. Congress will debate the referendum results or if Obama will consider the results to be a clear enough majority.

Congress must approve the addition of any new state to the United States and is not required to seek or follow the input of residents of territory outside any U.S. State.  Congress could foist independence on an unwilling Puerto Rico, make it a U.S. state despite local opposition, or change the relationship between Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S. without consulting Puerto Rican officials.

The results are somewhat ambiguous due to the structure of the referendums. About 46% of people favor the status quo of Commonwealth status, which is greater than the percentage who favored sovereign free association if there was a change in status. Independence does not enjoy much support at all. It appears that many of the people who voted for statehood would actually prefer the status quo. In a straight up or down vote on the question of whether Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state or retain the status quo, it appears that the outcome would be close to 50-50 because some of the people who don't want to status quo to continue favor independence or greater autonomy for Puerto Rico, rather than closer ties to the United States.

Given this lack of clarity, it seems likely that Congress will not act to make Puerto Rico a U.S. state and will instead retain or slightly tweak the status quo.

Implications of Statehood

The addition of Puerto Rico as a state would give it two Senators and roughly six representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as about eight electoral votes, who would very likely be reliably democratic in their partisan leanings.

Puerto Rico's residents have much lower incomes than residents of other U.S. states, potentially wrecking havoc on tax code formulas and means testing regimes designed to fit the range of personal income in U.S. states (under the current U.S. tax code without special rules for Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth might be entitled to more refunds than its residents pay in taxes).

Puerto Rico would also be the only U.S. state in which the dominant language was not English, something that goes to the identity of the United States as a whole.

Democratic and Colonial Theory Context

Almost all of the other substantial U.S. possessions, and the most populous possessions of its developed world peers left over from the colonial era either have the equivalent of statehood status or are independent nations. Many U.S. possessions, such as the Philippines, were granted independence in the last half of the 20th century. But, Puerto Rico doesn't want independence.  Presumably, the fact that it doesn't is a sign that even without democratic participation, being part of the United States has real value.

Both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, however, pose fundamental problems of democratic fairness by denying vast numbers of mostly low income U.S. citizens, in each case more than the populations of some U.S. states, who just happen to be overwhelmingly non-white, any representatives in the federal legislative process to which they are subject, and leaving their home rule regimes subject to modifications at the whim of a distant Congress in which they have no say. D.C., which is monothically Democratic, does have a say in Presidential elections, but Puerto Rico lacks even that. Other U.S. territories have populations far less than any U.S. state and collectively have fewer people than a single Congressional district.

Given the clear partisan impact of giving either Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia real political power, it seems unlikely that either approach would be approved by a U.S. House of Representatives controlled by Republicans absent some sort of national drama.

All significantly populated U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have democratic home rule powers substantially similar to those of a U.S. state and non-voting representation in Congress, although without constitutional protections for those arrangements.

Some of the main proposals to improve the situation in the District of Columbia include:
* giving it status as a tax free zone as a consequence of its lack of representation like Puerto Rico - District of Columbia license plates already sport the motto "taxation without representation";
* forming a U.S. state out of all of the District of Columbia except the core area where the White House, capital and most federal office buildings are located (presumably the constitution would then be amended to deprive this tiny federal area of its electoral votes after the rest of the District receives statehood treatment);
* restoring the portion of the District of Columbia that could have received statehood to Maryland from which it was ceded (i.e. retrocession) - something already done wit all or most of the territory ceded by Virginia;
* amend the U.S. Constitution to give the District of Columbia representation in the House and Senate as if it were a state without giving it actual statehood status (this option could also be applied to Puerto Rico).

1 comment:

andrew said...

In depth historicial analysis here.