Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Puerto Rico’s Presidential Vote Issue Takes Center Stage

By on September 24, 2018

The Hall of Heroes at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) honors patriots from the countries throughout the region. (OAS Photo)

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

Following a petition filed 12 years ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) has finally agreed to hear the petition from former Gov. Pedro Rosselló and pro-statehood lawyer Gregorio Igartúa on Puerto Ricans’ inability to vote for U.S. presidential or congressional elections.

However, the United States is objecting to the request, stating that while it is true Puerto Ricans do not vote in U.S. elections, it does not constitute a violation of the American Declaration of the Rights & Duties of Man, an international human rights declaration adopted in 1948.

The commission, which meets only four times a year, holds its next meeting Oct. 5 in Boulder, Colo. Previously, in 2003, the IACHR ruled that the United States violated the declaration by denying Washington, D.C. the opportunity to participate in Congress.

“It took 12 years, but they will finally see it,” Igartúa said. The petition was filed in 2006 and the United States issued a response in 2010.

Why did it take so long for the commission to hold a hearing on the petition? Igartúa noted that one of the requirements for a hearing before the IACHR is that all remedies have to be exhausted in the adequate forums before a petition is heard. Since 1992, on three separate occasions, Igartúa has unsuccessfully sought to obtain the presidential vote for Puerto Ricans. All cases were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has declined to hear them. The third attempt, however, was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2006, the same year the petition was filed before the OAS. Igartúa also had a separate case in U.S. courts that sought the right to have representatives in the U.S. House. The fact Igartúa exhausted his petitions allowed Rosselló to get a hearing too, the lawyer said.

In the case before the IACHR, Rosselló and Igartúa are claiming violations of Article XX of the declaration that entails the right to vote and participate in government.

They claim the inaction by Congress and the Executive Branch, with respect to the voting rights of Puerto Ricans coupled with the restrictive interpretation of the courts, are confining Puerto Ricans to a state of servitude through disenfranchisement, according to a file in the case.

“They assert that Federal Court [is] adhering to the procedural element of the presidential election, the electors requirement…to deny their right to vote, thus ignoring the substantive element, the right to vote, which flows to the people through U.S. citizenship. They allege the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections has evolved,” the report said.

The petition contends the right to vote for president should be determined by citizenship and not statehood.

Moreover, the petition notes the courts have issued contradictory opinions, applying the U.S. Constitution without requiring that Puerto Rico become a state but then granting different treatment in other cases, “including fundamental rights.”

The United States has acknowledged that Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections because the U.S. Constitution only affords this right to citizens residing in states and in the District of Columbia. “It claims, however, that this does not constitute a violation of the American declaration because the facts alleged by the petitioners do not establish any discrimination against specific individuals, [or] any inappropriate denial of the rights to vote or participate in government,” a file from the petition says.

The United States, which reiterated its stance in a June 2018 letter, said Puerto Ricans can elect their own governor and Legislature and exercise a range of autonomy similar to a state. Puerto Rico also has its own local and federal court systems. They are also represented by a nonvoting resident commissioner in Congress and can vote for U.S. president, if they move to a state.

The United States also says it has not violated Article XX of the American declaration because the article provides for the right to take part in the governance of one’s country and to vote in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, in a periodic and free fashion but does not “dictate the modalities of such participation.”

“The state submits there is nothing unreasonable or discriminatory in its constitutional structure and that American citizens residing in Puerto Rico have accepted this system by voting to reject statehood and independence on three separate occasions,” adding that the claims have been rejected by U.S. courts.

Igartúa said the suggestion that Puerto Ricans should move to the States to vote for the president is discrimination itself. He likened it to telling African-Americans to move to the North to avoid the discrimination they were experiencing in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

He said the United States forgets that there is already a law that allows U.S. citizens living in foreign countries to be able to vote in presidential elections, even if they have no intention of returning to their homeland.

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