After explaining that the Department of Justice has not approved or reviewed the ballot language of Puerto Rico’s upcoming June 11 plebiscite status vote, a DOJ official declined to comment about whether the United States government will even honor the vote’s results, according to an email response sent to Latino USA on Wednesday.
The exchange between the Department of Justice official and Latino USA began as a follow-up to a May 25 press conference in Washington, D.C., where three of Puerto Rico’s statehood leaders –Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (a non-voting Republican member of Congress), Governor Ricardo Rosselló (a Democrat) and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (a Republican)– indicated that the DOJ had approved the language of the June vote and that congressional leaders should honor the results, especially if statehood won.
Initially, Latino USA had asked the DOJ on Wednesday if it had approved the June 11 ballot language, which gives Puerto Ricans three choices: statehood (the controversial winner of a 2012 non-binding vote), independence or commonwealth, the island’s current territorial status.
“The Department has not reviewed or approved the current ballot language and any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect,” the DOJ official wrote, using the same statement shared with POLITICO on May 26.
In response to that statement, which suggested that any May 25 claims made by González, Rosselló and Schatz were not accurate, Latino USA asked if the DOJ considered the June vote valid, and would the department and Congress even honor the results.
At this point in the thread with Latino USA, the DOJ official declined to comment.
Last week at the May 25 press conference, Rosselló expressed frustration to anyone who would not take the plebiscite process seriously.
“I am appalled that any process that is a democratic process would be considered a political exercise,” Rosselló said. “It doesn’t matter where it stems from, if it stems from the people or if it stems from the U.S. citizens that reside in Puerto Rico—it is a valid process. So we can never accept any premise, whereby someone will try to diminish the process for secondary considerations.”
Questions about the plebiscite’s validity have lingered ever since April 13, when the DOJ instructed the Rosselló administration to add commonwealth as a status option and not hold a vote with only two options (statehood or independence). At first, Rosselló went on Twitter to express his frustration about the DOJ decision, which also indicated that it would not release $2.5 million in federal funds to be used for “objective, nonpartisan voter education about, and a plebiscite on, options that would resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status.” Within hours, Rosselló changed his position on Twitter and said his government would add the commonwealth choice to the ballot.
However, there has been a lack of clarity about what happened since April. Those close to the interaction between the federal government and the Puerto Rican government have indicated that the DOJ was willing to work with the Rosselló administration to review the plebiscite’s final language, but that the DOJ needed more time for this process to play out, suggesting that Puerto Rico delay the June 11 plebiscite and move it to a later date. The Rosselló administration chose to not change the date of the June 11 vote, even though the DOJ had yet to approve the plebiscite language and was open to reviewing the ballot.
In addition, even if the DOJ were to approve the ballot language two weeks before June 11, any federal funds for nonpartisan voter education about the plebiscite won’t be utilized at all for this plebiscite. As the House Report from 2014 states, “The funds provided for the plebiscite shall not be obligated until 45 days after the Department notifies the Committees on Appropriations that it approves of an expenditure plan from the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission for voter education and plebiscite administration, including approval of the plebiscite ballot. This notification shall include a finding that the voter education materials, plebiscite ballot, and related materials are not incompatible with the Constitution and laws and policies of the United States.”
The use of federal funds for the education of a local plebiscite was seen by many observers of Puerto Rican politics as an indication that the U.S., which has held Puerto Rico as a territory since 1898, would pay closer attention to the results of this latest vote.
Without federal funds, any money being used in the June 11 plebiscite is local. According to current estimates, the vote will cost the Puerto Rican government $5.3 million, at a time when the island is in the middle of a massive debt crisis, which has led to the creation of a fiscal control board under the bipartisan PROMESA federal legislation and cuts to services.
On May 25, González, Rosselló and Schatz visited several Congressional leaders, such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
— Jenniffer González (@RepJenniffer) May 25, 2017
Acknowledging that he could not secure guarantees from Washington that it would honor the results of the June 11 plebiscite, Rosselló said last week that he was not “asking for a blessing, but informing the members of Congress that we the people of Puerto Rico are taking action, that we have a plebiscite that is consistent with what the Department of Justice has established, and that we expect results and movements right after 3.5 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico have taken action.”
González also added on May 25 that President Trump had made a campaign promise that he would honor the June 11 results.
Latino USA contacted Rep. Ryan’s office, Sen. McConnell’s office and the White House for their positions on the June 11 vote. While Ryan’s office and the White House have not responded, David Popp, Sen. McConnell’s communications director, did say that “if the Leader issues a statement, I will be sure to pass it along.”
Another email from Latino USA to González’s office, asking if the Resident Commissioner would like to comment about the June 11 vote and what the DOJ official said about the plebiscite, has yet to be answered.
In 2012, Puerto Ricans voted on a two-part plebiscite—54% of voters (more than 938,000 votes) rejected the island’s current territorial status in the first part, while in the second part, 61% of voters (more than 802,000 voters) chose statehood. The results of the 2012 vote —as well as previous results in 1967, 1993 and 1998— have always been non-binding. For the upcoming 2017 vote, statehood opponents have said they would not participate.
Despite projections that the 2017 plebiscite will not have a high participation rate, Puerto Rico’s legislature, controlled by the island’s pro-statehood party, passed a Tennessee Plan bill on Wednesday. In that bill, an equality commission for Puerto Rico would name two senators and five representatives that the Rosselló administration would send to Washington, with the hopes that Congress would admit them. It was a strategy used by Tennessee in the late 18th century when it wanted to become a part of the Union.
Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and those Puerto Ricans who live on the island do not have representation in Congress. They cannot vote in presidential elections, although they can vote in presidential primaries.