Puerto Ricans have demonstrated support for statehood

Claims that last year’s referendum didn’t show enough support don’t make sense.

The El Morro Fortress in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The El Morro Fortress in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Gary Ives/Shutterstock

Puerto Rico wants to be a state: 52% of its residents said so in a locally-sponsored plebiscite in November 2020.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, affirmed that choice when he introduced a Puerto Rico statehood bill in January. “Last November, a majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood and for full voting representation in Congress,” Heinrich wrote in a statement. “It is long past due for the millions of American citizens living in Puerto Rico to get the representation they deserve.”

Only three of Heinrich’s Democratic colleagues have signed on to his bill and New York’s senior senator, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, was not among them. Schumer and 38 of his Democratic colleagues did endorse the D.C. Statehood Admissions Act. Schumer is all in on statehood for D.C., but seemingly lukewarm on giving Puerto Rico the same consideration. 

The reasons for this should be called out, challenged and scrutinized. In a September 2020 interview on MSNBC, Schumer detailed some of what he hoped to accomplish as the new Senate Democratic Majority Leader. “On D.C. & Puerto Rico, particularly if Puerto Rico votes for it. D.C. already has voted for it and wants it. Would love to make them states,” he said.

In November, 52.5% of Puerto Rican voters endorsed statehood. Six weeks later, Schumer moved the goalposts. He told El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s largest daily newspaper, that 52.5% of the vote did not reflect the strong majority required to advance a statehood bill. “There is still no consensus. There is division,” he said. “I’m waiting for a consensus to develop.” So now Puerto Rico has to vote for statehood in big numbers like D.C. to win his support? 

Democrats in Puerto Rico expressed disappointment after learning of his remarks. They wondered why he was “backtracking” his pledge to support statehood if the people chose that option. “You can’t ask the people of Puerto Rico to vote and then ignore what they democratically decide with their ballots,” wrote Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chairman, Charles Rodriguez, in a letter to Schumer.

Schumer is proposing an artificial threshold to judge the validity of an election. Trying to nullify and discredit an election because the majority results are low is a questionable proposition. 

Consider the following: The U.S. Senate just passed a $1.9 billion Covid Relief Bill by a one vote majority. The final vote was a tie: 50 v. 50. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat from Washington Heights told El Nuevo Dia’s “Podcast from Washington” that a 52.5% majority was not large enough to advance a statehood bill. Espaillat won the Democratic primary for his congressional seat in 2016 with just 36% of the vote.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a longtime statehood opponent from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, won the Democratic primary in the first contest for her congressional seat in 1992 with 33% of the vote. 

Don’t these low numbers invalidate the legitimacy of these elections, according to Schumer’s logic? Where is the outcry deploring the lack of a consensus or strong majority? Why is some unspecified supermajority threshold being selectively used in an election in Puerto Rico? 

Political status requires a different sort of calculus, according to those like Velazquez, who are working to ensure their own version of a fair and inclusive self-determination process, in which a convention whose delegates are selected by Puerto Rican voters would decide the island’s fate. The finality of a vote for statehood requires a larger-than-usual majority because the consequences of such a vote are irreversible, they argue. 

But is that a compelling enough reason to delay congressional consideration of the status option chosen by the majority? We lament it when folks don't exercise the franchise, but we don't negate the votes of those who do. Nor do we nullify the results of those elections because the losing side decides to selectively question the percentage of votes won by the winning side. 

So why is Schumer eager to implement D.C.’s status preference through a statehood bill while finding reasons to block Puerto Rico’s?