A few weeks ago, at the San Jose airport on my way to participate in an international election observation of Puerto Rico’s statehood referendum, the airline ticket agent asked me for my passport. This request surprised me: Puerto Rico is part of the United States, so a passport isn’t required for Americans to travel there. But as I soon discovered, through my work on the election, this request shone a light not only on the complex, and at times thorny, relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico that has persisted for over a century, but also on what true voter access and democratic engagement might look like. To understand the dynamics of the referendum, which was the fifth time since 1967 that Puerto Ricans voted on their future (to be a Commonwealth, independence, or statehood), it’s helpful to look at the vote’s connection to the past. A hundred years ago, an Act of Congress provided American citizenship to Puerto Ricans and increased their democratic self-governance. But today, Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico don’t have all of the rights of citizenship. For one, Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland of the U.S. may vote for president, but the 3.5 million people who live in Puerto Rico can’t, except in the primaries. Moreover, they don’t have full voting representation in Congress.
This status chafes many Puerto Ricans, and it often leads to small peculiarities and indignities. A woman, for instance, told me about an incident in which she and her daughter were lost late one night after renting a car at the airport in Miami. She was stopped by a police officer and asked to show her license. The officer told her that she isn’t legally allowed to drive in the U.S. with a Puerto Rican license. I’ve heard many similar stories.
The issues surrounding the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. have been debated for many years, both in Congress and in Puerto Rico. Two recent Supreme Court cases caused much concern in Puerto Rico, when the Court issued decisions touching on the legal authority of Puerto Rico’s government. One of the cases, Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, involved the application of the Constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy to criminal prosecutions in Puerto Rico. The court held that “Puerto Rico’s Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain” of Congressional authority. In other words, this suggested that Congress has total authority over Puerto Rico.