United States / Civil Rights

America’s Second-Class Citizens: The Lost Puerto Rican Vote

I never thought about citizenship until I found myself in an eight-person government seminar the fall of my first year at Bowdoin. It was titled Nationalism, and little did I know that this course would expose me to the marginalization of millions of Americans living in U.S. territories, and further, that I was a member of this marginalized group.

The eighth week of the course introduced the concept of citizenship: What does it mean to be a citizen? Who is a citizen? What rights do they have? What responsibilities? The answers were simple, specifically in the context of the United States: Citizens are legally recognized members of a state who have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a fair trial, and the freedom to worship freely. The final two rights, the professor noted, were, “the right to vote in elections of public officials” and “the right to run for public office.” As the discussion continued, my mind wandered from the quintessentially American enclave of Brunswick, Maine, to the tropical island on which I was born and raised.

In 1898, as a result of the short-lived Spanish-American war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico as a colonial war prize to the United States. Washington took little interest in the island’s affairs until March 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act, which granted citizenship to Puerto Rican residents. In 1950, President Harry Truman signed Public Act 600, establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which remains the island’s current status.

Photo by flickr.com user hsbfrank

Photo by flickr.com user hsbfrank

Puerto Rico’s status remains a hotly debated and incredibly divisive issue, yet—practically speaking—irrelevant. Although the Commonwealth’s political parties are divided by the stance on status, with the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progessive Party) running on a platform of pro-statehood; the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party) running to remain an “Estado Libre Asociado,” or unincorporated territory; and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party) running for independence; the Puerto Rican people realistically do not have a say in the status. In recent history, the island’s residents have elected either PNP or PDP governors (the highest position of power in Puerto Rico’s governmental structure), as the populace is almost evenly split between the two parties. The election of a pro-statehood governor has not resulted in statehood, nor has it resulted in any legitimate efforts by Congress to add Puerto Rico to the United States. There have been at least two official referendums in recent years; marred as they were by controversial polling methods, neither resulted in any legitimate movement to change the status.

As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico has an enigmatic relationship to the mainland. Every individual born in Puerto Rico is an American citizen and carries an American passport. But those born in Puerto Rico are barred from running for president of the United States, and Americans who list Puerto Rico as their primary residence do not have the right to vote in the presidential election. They do, however, have the opportunity to vote in the presidential primaries because the Democratic and Republican parties both included in their charters a statement allowing Puerto Ricans to select delegates for nominating conventions. In terms of congressional representation, Puerto Ricans elect a Resident Commissioner who acts as their voice in Congress, but does not have a vote. These laws are found in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

These prohibitive clauses of the Constitution border the absurd. Think about it: If an individual is born in Kansas and moves to Puerto Rico a day after his or her birth, this person is eligible to run for president. Yet if the same individual were to be born in Puerto Rico, but move to Kansas a day after his or her birth, this person would not be permitted to run for president. The physical location of this individual’s birth within the United States should not affect whether or not this person is eligible to run for president. It is illogical that there are barriers to certain citizens running for the highest office in the country, especially in a time where the territories they live in are equally as developed as continental states.

Today, the United States is a far more inclusive society than that of the xenophobic 1920s, the decade that saw the enactment of the Jones Act. It is unethical to discount millions of citizens based solely on the status of their territory. As the world becomes smaller, with globalization connecting even the farthest of countries, these prohibitions seem more and more archaic in their arbitrary application to all territorial residents. Puerto Rico is as developed as many U.S. states, and its citizens are often as educated as those in U.S. states. Further, what differentiates American citizens living in U.S. territories from those living on the mainland? It is undemocratic to deny citizens the right to elect their leader, especially if these citizens are sacrificing their lives for a Commander in Chief they had no role in electing. (Since 1917, over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the American military.)

In a 2011 address concerning the island’s status, Puerto Rico’s current Resident Commissioner, Congressman Pedro R. Pierluisi said, “Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents lack the most basic right in a democracy: voting representation in the government that makes their national laws. And because of Puerto Rico’s status, Island residents are often treated unfairly under federal health, education, security and social safety-net programs.”

Congressman Pierluisi’s remarks are trenchant but true. This is proven further by the fact that Americans living abroad are permitted to vote for president by absentee ballot. In fact, in 31 states, citizens who have never lived in the United States can vote in federal elections, generally in the state where the citizen-parent last claimed residency. In regard to immigrants to the United States, The Center for Immigrant Studies published an article stating that there are several cities that allow non-citizen immigrants to vote in local elections, arguing that “voting is an iconic embodiment in American civic life. Other than standing for public office, American citizens have no stronger collective civic obligations than those that flow from their ability and responsibility to help shape community policy. The vote is a primary vehicle for exercising those civic responsibilities. That is why the extension of the vote to all the country’s citizens has historically been a critical measure of America’s progress toward living up to its democratic ideals.”

Moreover, all immigrants who are legal citizens and declare their residency in the continental United States have full voting rights. It is irrational that certain natural born citizens are denied a right new citizens have? How is this just? Is it taxation without representation, the same policy our nation’s founders fought so ardently against? Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax on Puerto Rico sourced income (unless the income comes from a U.S. government job, including the Armed Forces), but they do on any income earned in the continental United States or abroad. This is a popular argument for rationalizing the federal government’s decision to handicap Puerto Rico’s representation in government. It is a larger issue than simple finances—there are millions of citizens whose voices are not heard.

As I sat processing the rights my professor listed off, I concluded that Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens merely by the territorial bounds that separate them from the United States. Why do borders still dictate the rights of citizens? Why is it that I can vote for President when I reside in Maine, but not when I am home in Puerto Rico? A year has passed and I am still unsure of the answer.

Ironically, as a result of the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans fleeing economic insecurity and moving to the continental United States, it is likely that this population will be a large deciding factor in the 2016 presidential elections. The population in Florida is nearing one million (847,550 in the 2010 Census), and in such a politically divided state, this new Puerto Rican population may be the demographic that paints the state red or blue.