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The Record, Northern New Jersey

Should Puerto Ricans Vote For U.S. President?


September 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Hispanic Link News Service. All Rights Reserved.

THEY ARE American citizens deprived of the constitutional right to vote. They are denied adequate representation in Congress. They serve in our armed forces, and they can even vote in presidential primaries. But in the general elections, they cannot select the president who could send them off to war.

They can have those rights restored if they move to the U.S. mainland. But they are second-class citizens as long as they live in a U.S. colony known as Puerto Rico .

And so, when a federal judge ruled last month that Puerto Ricans have a right to vote for president on Nov. 7, you would think that justice finally prevailed for 4 million U.S. citizens including 2.4 million registered voters who live in Puerto Rico .

You would think that we were finally abiding by our democratic principles. You would think that it's about time since Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917 to give them the most precious entitlement in a democratic society, right?

Not so fast. The federal government is appealing the ruling.

And thanks to our Electoral College system of electing presidents, the appeal is likely to prevail. Although the Constitution repeatedly reaffirms a citizen's "fundamental right" to vote, it also establishes that states, not individuals, vote for president and vice president through an Electoral College system.

Since Puerto Rico is not a state, but a U.S. commonwealth, the federal government is now arguing that those "fundamental rights" should be denied to Puerto Ricans . So much for our democratic principles.

U.S. District Judge Jaime Pieras Jr. ruled that as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have a constitutional right to vote that outweighs the power of Congress over territories. He instructed the Puerto Rican government to prepare for the election and ruled that Congress must count the resulting eight electoral votes.

Pieras Aug. 29 decision stemmed from a claim filed in April by 11 Puerto Ricans who sued for the right to vote in November. The pro- statehood, commonwealth government joined the plaintiffs.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello, thought to have some weight with President Clinton since he agreed to allow the U.S. Navy to resume training bombings on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , wrote the president a letter seeking support for the court's ruling.

"This partial enfranchisement of a community of 3.9 million previously disenfranchised American citizens will constitute another important step toward universal civic equality for our nation's increasingly ... diverse array of people," Rossello said in his letter to Clinton.

The pro-statehood governor also signed a law to allow Puerto Ricans to vote for president in November and "make their voices heard, along with their genuine desire to participate fully in the approaching democratic processes."

But Clinton and his Justice Department, not necessarily known for following the letter of the law, decided that this time "the language of Article 2 of the Constitution could not be clearer," according to the appeal motion: "Jurisdictions that are part of the United States, but are not states and do not send senators and representatives to Congress, are not empowered to choose electors for president and vice president." Short and simple, but not so sweet.

The Justice Department also asked the court to take swift action because "as the election nears, the disruption to the presidential campaigns increases, as does the unnecessary expenditure of resources, as ballots are printed and other preparations take place, according to the appeal. "A swift decision by this court would avoid unnecessary turmoil in Puerto Rico 's electoral processes."

What electoral process? Local elections? C'mon!

Nevertheless, legal experts expect Pieras ruling to be overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which handles federal appeals from Puerto Rico . They say there are only two ways to give Puerto Ricans the right to vote in federal elections: statehood for the Caribbean territory, or a change in the Constitution such as the 23rd Amendment, which gave residents of Washington, D.C., the right to vote in 1961.

The Puerto Rican lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Gregorio Igartua de la Rosa, is right when he charges this country 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 ." However, there is already a precedent. In a similar lawsuit by Igartua, a court ruled in 1994 that only as a state, or through a constitutional amendment, could Puerto Ricans be granted the right to vote for president and vice president.

Yet in his ruling, Pieras took the logical, principled, and democratic approach. He said that the right to vote for president depends on U.S. citizenship, instead of where the citizens live.

Unfortunately, what is logical, principled, and democratic is not always legal.

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