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The Columbus Dispatch

Voteless Puerto Ricans: What About Us?

by Glenn Sheller

November 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Columbus Dispatch. All Rights Reserved.

Nationwide disgust with the electoral chaos in Florida presents a unique opportunity for Puerto Rico , whose residents for years have agitated unsuccessfully for the right to vote in the U.S. presidential election.

Though Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since an act of Congress in 1917, their island is not a state and, therefore, has no vote in the Electoral College, the constitutional mechanism by which a president officially is elected after the popular vote.

This produces several annoying anomalies for Puerto Ricans. Those who take up residence on the mainland are allowed to cast a presidential ballot in the state in which they live, just like any other mainland resident.

But if they move back to Puerto Rico , they lose that right.

This is especially galling for Puerto Ricans, because the several million mainland- born Americans who live overseas retain their right to vote for president, via absentee ballots.

This means that a New Jersey native now living in a yurt on the steppes of Outer Mongolia can mail in an absentee ballot and have more influence on the U.S. presidential election than all 2.4 million voters of Puerto Rico , who are U.S. citizens living on U.S. territory.

Puerto Ricans also correctly complain that they have always been subject to the U.S. military draft and have fought and died in every American war since 1917, yet they get no say in the selection of the nation's commander in chief.

Meanwhile, one of the commander in chief's military services, the U.S. Navy, uses Vieques, a small, populated island belonging to Puerto Rico , for bombing practice. This is not only loud and nerve-wracking, a bombing accident there not long ago killed a Puerto Rican security guard and provoked a tense confrontation between protesters and the Navy.

Fed up with the injustice of it all, a group of Puerto Rican citizens went to court in San Juan, Puerto Rico 's capital, last month and won a ruling from a federal judge giving island residents the right to vote for president.

But that ruling quickly was overturned in a mainland federal appeals court.

And there, arguing against presidential voting rights for Puerto Ricans, was the U.S. Justice Department, a federal executive- branch agency run by -- guess who? -- the president.

Frustrated Puerto Ricans now view the spectacle of Florida, whose residents have enjoyed the right to vote for the president since statehood in 1845 but whose sorry performance this year refutes the theory that practice makes perfect.

Florida's election is a botch, which would be OK if all that was at stake was a congressional seat or the governor's office. The rest of the nation could ignore that. But this is the presidential election, and Florida has become an electoral bone in the throat for the entire country.

As each day passes with no resolution, a growing number of Americans probably would approve of cutting Florida loose from the mainland and floating it out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be right at home with any number of electorally challenged Caribbean republics.

This growing sentiment gives Puerto Rico its big chance.

The island's new governor, Sila Maria Calderon, should call a news conference and make this simple, compelling offer to the rest of the country:

"The Sunshine State has shown it is completely in the dark about how to conduct a competent presidential election. So, take away Florida's White House vote and give it to us. We promise to do better. For sure, we can't do worse.''

As a sweetener, Calderon could even offer to drop her government's opposition to Navy bombing practice on Vieques -- as long as the Navy agrees to use as targets Florida's now-notorious punch-card voting machines.

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