Jhe House on Thursday passed a bill that would allow Puerto Ricans to vote in the first-ever binding referendum to either join the United States as the 51st state or gain independence.
Coined Puerto Rico’s Status Act, the bill does not favor passage in the Senate, but symbolizes progress toward the island territory’s long-sought dream of achieving more political autonomy. The measure was backed by the White House and passed by a bipartisan vote of 233 to 191, with 16 Republicans joining 217 Democrats in approval.
The House took a similar initiative more than 10 years ago, but this time it includes a requirement that the federal government honor the results of a referendum, whatever they may be.
“For too long, residents of Puerto Rico – more than 3 million American citizens – have been denied the opportunity to determine their own political future and have not received all the rights and benefits of their citizenship because they reside in U.S. territory,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and the bill’s 63 co-sponsors wrote, “HR 8393 [The Puerto Rico Status Act] would take a historic step toward righting that wrong by establishing a process to verify the will of Puerto Rican voters.
Over the years, Puerto Rico has held seven referendums to gauge the kind of political future its people want, but none of them were binding and generally faced low turnout. In a 2020 referendum, 53% of Puerto Ricans voted for the island to become a state.
Puerto Rico’s status law would include three options that voters could choose from in a referendum. The choices are to grant Puerto Rico statehood, grant it independence, or grant it independence while retaining some American affiliations. The bill also covers some procedures on how the changes could be implemented and designates resources for a voter education campaign.
Puerto Rico’s status bill would need at least 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate, which analysts are highly skeptical of. With Republicans poised to take control of the House in January, the measure appears to be a last-ditch effort to pursue Puerto Rico’s independence or statehood. The GOP generally doesn’t fight for Puerto Rican statehood, likely because of how the move could add more Democratic voters to the national electorate.
Following its colonization under Spain in the early 16th century, Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898. The island now has more than three million inhabitants. Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, but still lack representation in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections.
Puerto Ricans also face eligibility restrictions for some federal programs and generally do not pay federal income tax, but they can serve in the U.S. military and are subject to the draft. About 40% of Puerto Ricans live at or below the poverty line.
“It’s time to reflect on the political and economic consequences of the Puerto Rican state, let alone oppose it,” wrote Christina Ponsa-Krau, a Columbia law professor who specializes in U.S. territorial expansion, in an essay for the New York Times. “You don’t annex a place, make it your colony for almost a century and a quarter, and then throw out its people’s vote for a state.”
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