Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is taking the lead in the Senate during a perilous time, with a pandemic raging and Americans struggling to keep their jobs or small businesses open. As Democrats work to tackle these important challenges alongside President Biden, it is critical that the party honors the zeal of equality that drove voters nationwide to entrust them with the reins of democracy and to not forget the disenfranchised voices in Puerto Rico, who are fighting for their rights as American citizens to finally achieve equal status under the law.
While there are many important issues Congress must face in the 117th session, Democrats must not ignore the democratic will expressed in Puerto Rico this past November, when a majority of voters cast their ballot in favor of statehood. This was the third vote on Puerto Rico’s status since 2012, and the third time that statehood earned the most support from voters.
The reason Puerto Ricans support statehood is easy to understand. Living in a territory has relegated Puerto Ricans to second-class status, without any voting representation in the Senate, one non-voting member in the House, and no right to vote for president of the United States — despite having to live under the rules set forth by Congress and the executive branch. Many Puerto Ricans can share their personal stories of experiencing this second-class status, in my case working on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama while not being able to cast a ballot for him. And while Puerto Ricans also pay taxes, we don’t get the full benefits afforded to those on the mainland.
Schumer has said that “on D.C. and Puerto Rico, particularly if Puerto Rico votes for it — D.C. already has voted for it and wants it — I’d love to make them states.” With his newfound power of a Senate Democratic majority, he has the opportunity and the responsibility to now uphold his promise to the people of Puerto Rico.
While there are many Democrats who are unequivocally in support of statehood, the majority have said that they will respect the will of the Puerto Rican people. If they want to prove that their sentiments are real, they must respect the fair and democratic results of the recent statehood vote.
Unfortunately, there is a legislative effort underway led by Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to undermine the voters in Puerto Rico, from afar. A bill introduced last year, which will likely be introduced again during this new Congress, aims to ignore the recent democratic decision in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico and give power to a “status convention,” where delegates would come up with a plan to address the status of Puerto Rico for those on the island to vote on it — again.
The disingenuous part of this plan is that the people of Puerto Rico have already repeatedly expressed their will democratically, not through delegates, over the past decade.
In 2012, voters on the island were asked two questions. First, whether they agreed that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status. The majority, 53.97%, said they do not support Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory. Voters were then asked, regardless of how they answered the first question, their preference among the three non-territorial alternatives: statehood; complete independence; or nationhood in free association with the United States. The results were clear: 61.16% chose statehood of the three status options for Puerto Rico.
In 2017, they held another referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico. The ballot comprised three options for voters to choose from: becoming a state of the United States, independence/free association, or maintaining the current territorial status. The statehood option garnered 97% of the voters’ support
And then, in the most recent referendum in November 2020, voters were asked a straightforward question: “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” Again, a majority of voters (52.52%) said “Yes.”
We have seen firsthand in recent weeks the dangers of ignoring the democratic process, or attempting to invalidate the results of an election. Any effort by elected officials, such as the bill introduced last session by Velazquez and Ocasio-Cortez, to invalidate the voices of the Puerto Rican electorate should be opposed as contrary to the democratic values Democrats espouse. Especially if the so-called solution is a process that once again delays what has already taken place on the island at the ballot box.
Democrats know that the delay of justice is itself an injustice. And any effort to delay the implementation of the democratic will of the Puerto Rican people would certainly be an injustice that Democrats should not stand for.