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Sun-Sentinel Ft. Lauderdale

Court Made Right Decision

October 27, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Sun-Sentinel Ft. Lauderdale. All Rights Reserved.

A U.S. federal appeals court in Boston made the right legal decision when it ruled that the residents of Puerto Rico do not have the right to vote in presidential elections.

But as one judge pointed out in a separate but concurring opinion, there is a moral problem that needs fixing.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there are only two ways for Puerto Rico 's 2.4 million registered voters to cast presidential ballots. Either the U.S. territory, which is called a Commonwealth, becomes a state or the Constitution is amended. Residents of Washington, D.C., gained the presidential vote in 1961 through the 23rd Amendment.

In a separate opinion, chief appellate Judge Juan R. Torruella agreed with the majority but focused on what he called the U.S. government's "national disenfranchisement" of Puerto Ricans living on the island.

"The perpetuation of this colonial condition runs against the very principles upon which this nation was founded," Torruella wrote.

He is right.

Puerto Ricans may want to remain in their current political status , as an unincorporated territory of the United States. A majority has supported the commonwealth status in at least three plebiscites over the years.

But here's the catch. All these votes have been non-binding. This means Congress has never asked Puerto Rico to make a choice on its future, nor has it agreed to abide by the outcome. Every time Puerto Rico has voted on the status issue, it has done so in a vacuum, without U.S. lawmakers fully laying out the conditions for statehood , independence or greater autonomy on the table.

Residents of Puerto Rico have not clamored for a change. But this doesn't eliminate the problem of lack of representative democracy. Close to 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico don't have the right to vote for the president they serve in war and peace. The island also has no voting representation in Congress, a body that has final say over this U.S. territory.

The Puerto Rico issue is complex. Under statehood , island residents would have to pay federal income taxes -- or be phased into the system. Other issues dealing with language and culture also are tough. Spanish is the predominant language in Puerto Rico , and the United States has never had a Spanish-speaking state.

But ignoring these difficult issues is not the most effective way to deal with them.

Washington has a colonial problem to solve. Puerto Rico 's residents need to make up their mind about their future. The side that holds the power needs to set the process in motion.

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