Puerto Rico vote drive hit by lawsuits
A judge has said island residents may vote in U.S. presidential elections.
BY JOHN McPHAUL
Special to The Herald
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Controversial local legislation that
would give Puerto
Ricans the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections is facing a flurry of legal
obstacles -- including a challenge by the U.S. Justice Department.
The legislation, signed into law Sunday by Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro
based on a June decision by San Juan Federal Court Judge Jaime Pieras, who
declared that as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have a constitutional right to vote in
Residents of Puerto Rico can vote in presidential primaries, but
not in general
The bill that would give them that right was crafted by the governing
New Progressive Party.
It provides for an island-wide vote for slates of eight electoral
chosen by the national political parties.
The action is seen by opponents as an effort by the Rosselló
advance its pro-statehood agenda.
Under the legislation, Puerto Ricans would chose between candidates
of the two
major parties registered in Puerto Rico -- or other parties that register candidates
within two weeks of the Nov. 7 election -- on a ballot separate from those for local
The Puerto Rican Independence Party filed suit Monday in San Juan
Court on the basis of provisions in the Puerto Rican Constitution stating that the
relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States can be changed only by
popular consent and not by the island's legislature.
``By allowing a vote in the presidential elections, the [Puerto
Rican] government is
trying to act as if it were a U.S. state, which constitutes a change in the
relationship between the Commonwealth and the U.S.,'' said Carlos Iván Gorrín, a
lawyer for the Puerto Rican Independence Party.
Public funds cannot be used for such a purpose under the local
PROELA, a small political party advocating Puerto Rican independence
association'' with the United States, filed a second suit challenging the law on
On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department appealed Pieras' decision
to the First
Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on grounds that a constitutional amendment is
needed to allow Puerto Ricans to vote. The Boston court deals with federal
appeals from Puerto Rico.
``The language of Article 2 of the Constitution could not be clearer,''
action signed by Matthew M. Collette and Jacob M. Lewis of the U.S. Justice
Department's appellate staff's civil divisions. ``Jurisdictions that are part of the
United States, but are not `states' and do not send senators and representatives
to Congress, are not empowered to choose electors for president and vice
Pieras had ruled that the constitutional right of U.S. citizens
living in Puerto Rico
to vote for president outweighs congressional power over U.S. territories.
His decision came in response to a lawsuit filed in April by a
group of residents
led by attorney Gregoria Igartua de la Rosa and ordered the Commonwealth
government to provide for a vote in the presidential elections ``with all possible
Independence Party leader and gubernatorial candidate Rubén
that the push for a presidential vote was a transparent effort by statehood forces,
led by the lame-duck Rosselló, to advance the statehood cause after failure of two
plebiscites on the issue during Rosselló's tenure.
Berríos said that the pro-statehood views of Judge Pieras,
a native Puerto Rican,
are well known.
``He is a full-blooded, classic Puerto Rican Republican,'' said Berríos.
Sen. Kenneth McClintock of the New Progressive Party countered
that the issue
was not even on his party's radar screen before the court decision.