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Do You Want To Vote?

by Francisco Javier Cimadevilla

August 3, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs in history have involved the articulation of ever so simple, so obvious propositions.

From Descartes’ existential affirmation to Newton’s laws of physics, the simplicity of principle has often baffled mediocre minds unable to rise above the complexities of an enigma.

U.S. District Court judge Jaime Pieras held last week a simple proposition: that the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections is constitutionally inherent to the condition of American citizenship.

He found the right in the U.S. Constitution, much the same as Justice Blackmun found the right of privacy in 1973–nowhere specifically, rather, in the penumbra of other constitutional provisions on the right to vote.

Many commentators in Puerto Rico, convinced they had personally extracted the last drop of juice from the tired mill of the island’s existential constitutional questioning have dropped their jaw in disbelieve. And have negated.

"It ain’t possible. We’ve always thought about it this other way . . . Oh, that has been litigated and adjudicated. Pieras was politically motivated. HHHhe will be reversed by Boston, most certainly!"

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Separate but equal–the Supreme Court doctrine that for years legitimized racial segregation of schools in the South–was litigated over and over again and it remained the law of the land. Until it no longer was. And the right of privacy was nowhere to be found in the Constitution, until Blackmun found it.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that U.S. citizens living on a territory have the right to vote for President. And nowhere does it say they don’t. The Constitution merely says how the states ought to elect the President.

The Constitution also has an amendment stating that the residents of the District of Columbia may vote for President. The mere existence of this amendment has been interpreted by some to require the same in the case of Puerto Rico. Among other things, Pieras’s decision stands for the proposition that that amendment was perhaps not required; that the right of all U.S. citizens to vote for President is inherent in their condition, regardless of their place of residence. He articulates convincingly, for example, that no constitutional amendment has been required to formalize the right of U.S. citizens living in foreign countries to exercise the same right.

No. Instead, Judge Pieras has found the right of U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to vote for President in the philosophical, moral, and legal reasoning behind the actual constitutional provisions–and subsequent court decisions–relating to the exercise of that right by former slaves, women, 18-year-olds, and, yes, the residents of the District of Columbia.

"The underlying arguments supporting. . . the right to vote in Presidential elections to residents of the District of Columbia apply to . . . Puerto Rico. Those residing in Puerto Rico have fulfilled the highest calling of citizenship, fighting and dying in the battlefields . . . Still, despite paying for their citizenship with blood, U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico have not entered the Presidential ballot box. It is inconceivable to our constitutional order to expect that the government can place our nation’s sons and daughters in harm’s way and not recognize the power to those individuals to have a say in electing those who will make that decision. . .The electoral ostracism of fellow U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico is abhorrent to our constitutionalism and to the precepts of democracy."

Oh, to how many a Puerto Rican veteran, or a mother who lost her son in Vietnam, or even a New York-born and raised Puerto Rican who has come home–or any other former stateside resident for that matter–do these words not sound true!

But beyond its merits as a breakthrough in constitutional law and civil rights enfranchisement for Puerto Ricans, Pieras’ decision is certain to have significant short and long term political implications both here and in Washington, regardless whether he is later reversed on appeal and the Commonwealth’s "democracy deficit" is reaffirmed.

First, because, in all likelihood, on November 7 eligible voters in Puerto Rico will cast ballots for President and Vice President of the United States.

Governor Rossello has indicated he will submit the requisite local legislation to enable the vote. At the very least, the NPP legislative majority will follow suit.

Even if Pieras’ reasoning were to be overturned on appeal, that is not likely to happen before the elections.

Contrary to the inference drawn by some commentators, Pieras has not decided the merits of a case before him; he has merely denied a motion to dismiss. This means that, in all likelihood, the federal government will have to litigate the case before it is ripe for an appeal to the First Circuit. Bottom line: this will take longer than 90 days.

The likelihood of a presidential vote in Puerto Rico on November 7 has placed San Juan Mayor and Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate in a position she would rather avoid.

She has two options: embrace the presidential vote or oppose it. Her decision could make or break her candidacy.

Her first instinct appeared to favor the vote. Good instinct. Irrespective of Piera’s reasoning which, understandably, the Mayor does not subscribe to, the bottom line of his decision was that U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico may vote for President under the present status, Indeed, that proposition has been pointed out as a possible Achilles heel for the statehood cause: if we can satisfy our appetite for the presidential vote under Commonwealth, our craving for statehood might be retarded further.

Whether actively opposing its implementation (for example, challenging in local court the constitutionality of the enabling law the NPP majority is certain to pass) or calling for abstention at the election, for Mayor Calderon to turn her back on the possibility of Puerto Ricans voting for President of the United States under the present status could be political suicide. At the very least, it will make all future grandiloquence about going to Washington to fight for more powers for Puerto Rico under Commonwealth sound awfully hollow.

It will also not work. Come November 7 if there’s a ballot on which to vote for President and Vice President people will mark it. Heavens, with our innate enthusiasm for electoral processes, we will vote for the President of Pago Pago, if given the chance.

There will be two distinct implications at the national level from the exercise itself even as a "straw" poll, that is, irrespective of whether the votes are considered valid in the electoral college.

First, the vote may place the last nail on the coffin of the already moribund "Vieques cause" as a rallying cry of the small separatist (both pro-independence and autonomist) movement. More broadly, it will throw a bucket of cold water over the heads of those neo-nationalism mongers who have so deftly played racist, right-wing politicians in Washington to sell the notion that the people of Puerto Rico do not feel part of the U.S. and don’t care to have a say in its national affairs. Indeed, it will be impossible to explain how a people who turn out in massive numbers to vote for the President and Vice President of the U.S. when first given the chance, do not feel part of the nation of which they are citizens.

Second, the vote may redefine the paradigm of Puerto Rico’s status question in Washington in regards to our presumed national political preferences. In all probability, Bush will win in Puerto Rico. Perhaps even big.

That possibility will send shrills down the spine of top Bush campaign strategist and paid PPD anti-statehood lobbyist Charlie Black who will finally have some explaining to do to either or both of his bosses.

It will also make Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott salivate so profusely over the possibility of engrossing Republican congressional and senatorial delegations that his Mississippi drawl will cease to be his only impediment to speak English intelligibly.

He might even learn to smile and say Hola, Puerto Rico!

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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