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Puerto Ricans Want Voting Rights; Reno: Residents Can't Vote For President

Puerto Ricans Want Voting Rights


September 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Rafael Zeruto campaigned hard and voted for Republican presidential candidates for years - until he returned to Puerto Rico from Florida. Now Zeruto, who came from Tallahassee in January to set up a pharmaceutical company, can't vote for president.

Neither can Xavier Romeu, who left a law practice in New York City to become Puerto Rico 's commerce secretary.

"How could it possibly be that somebody would send me to war and I will go, yet I have no say in that person's election? It's untenable," Romeu says.

The issue has been debated for years: Puerto Ricans are American citizens but can elect only one nonvoting delegate to Congress. They must register to be drafted into the U.S. armed forces. They don't pay federal taxes but receive about $12 billion in federal funding.

They can vote in the presidential primaries but not in the general election.

Then Zeruto and other activists sued the federal government. And they won a District Court ruling that could have Puerto Ricans voting for president in November after all - whether or not their votes end up counting.

Developments have been coming quickly.

The Justice Department said Monday it will appeal Judge Jaime Pieras' order that Puerto Rico 's government "act with all possible expediency" to enable islanders to vote for president as a constitutional right.

Pro- statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello had already signed a law a day earlier to allow islanders to cast ballots and "make their voices heard, along with their genuine desire to participate fully in the approaching democratic processes."

Puerto Rico 's government has joined the suit filed by Zeruto and 10 pro- statehood activists. One of them, attorney Gregorio Igartua de la Rosa, said Washington could find itself in "a very embarrassing situation considering that the United States promotes democracy abroad ... and denies it to its American citizens who are residents of Puerto Rico ."

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said, "Basically, our position is that the Constitution does not provide for anything other than states to choose electors." The only exception is Washington, D.C., given the right by the 23rd Amendment.

Republicans and Democrats already compete for Hispanic votes on the mainland, including among an estimated 2 million Puerto Ricans concentrated in Chicago, New York City, Hartford, Conn., and Orlando, Fla. They can vote for president because they live on the mainland; they've sent three politicians of Puerto Rican descent to Congress - all Democrats.

Puerto Rico has 2.4 million registered voters - more than 29 of the 50 states. And they turn out - 82 percent in 1996.

Under U.S. stewardship, this island of Spanish cadences and Latin rhythms has evolved from a dirt-poor outpost of subsistence farmers into a regional industrial power. It marked 100 years under the American flag in 1998.

This is a time of contradictory feelings and soul-searching here for many people. Most are proud of their U.S. citizenship yet also jealously guard their culture and enjoy sending their own competitors to the Olympics and Miss Universe contest.

Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens under the Jones Act of 1917 - some say so the president could draft islanders to man depleted trenches in World War I. Puerto Ricans proudly say they have sent a greater percentage of their men to fight and die for the United States than any state.

Romeu, Puerto Rico 's commerce secretary, lost a separate federal lawsuit last week, though U.S. District Judge Shira Sheindlin said all Americans living in Puerto Rico were "suffering a great injustice" and urged Washington to resolve the island's status .

The Democratic platform this year says Puerto Ricans are "entitled to the permanent and fully democratic status of their choice." The Republicans support statehood if Puerto Ricans want it.

But islanders remain divided. Though statehood has won a growing share of votes in local referendums it has yet to overtake those who believe the current arrangement gives them the best of both worlds.


Reno: Puerto Rico Residents Can't Vote For President

September 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday the Justice Department will take ``appropriate steps'' to deal with an effort by residents of Puerto Rico to gain the right to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

``While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can vote in any of the states, the Constitution does not provide for residents of territories -- Puerto Rico being a territory -- to be able to vote in presidential elections,'' Reno said during a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

If Puerto Rican officials go ahead with preparations for the vote, ``what we would do is look at it, talk with authorities and take whatever steps would be appropriate to let them know what the results were based on the court's decision,'' Reno said.

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