By George Laws García for Newsweek Magazine
In recent weeks, Democrats have made expanding voting rights a top priority, an effort that recently failed to pass the Senate but will remain top-of-mind for congressional Democrats. Yet over the course of this discussion and public debate, the president and top federal lawmakers have completely ignored the lack of voting rights for the over 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. If they are serious about voting rights for all Americans, they cannot ignore the undemocratic current territory status of Puerto Rico, which denies full voting rights to all island residents.
Even though Democrats knew that their voting rights bill was unlikely to pass, they spent an enormous amount of political capital on trying to move voting rights legislation in the Senate, with President Joe Biden visiting Georgia to champion the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed aggressively to carve out a filibuster exemption for the bill which was defeated by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Despite these efforts, top Democrats have failed to even mention one of the biggest voting rights injustices happening in America today, which is that the over 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are denied the right to vote for president, have no representation in the Senate and are limited to a single House member without equal voting rights on the floor. This denial of equal representation to voters in Puerto Rico is made even more abhorrent by the fact that under the current territory status, Congress and the executive branch treat Puerto Rico unequally in federal laws, programs and regulations to the detriment of island residents.
CONTACT YOUR MEMBER OF CONGRESSThe omission is particularly glaring given that voters in Puerto Rico have now rejected continuing under the unequal territory status and favored statehood among the viable non-territory options three times in the last decade. The most recent vote, held as recently as November 2020, demonstrated that a clear majority of Puerto Rico’s voters want to be admitted as a state of the union. Such a change would not only bring full voting rights to over 3 million Latino voters on the island, but would provide equal treatment under federal laws without which Puerto Rico cannot fully recover and reach its maximum economic potential.
That is exactly why congressman Darren Soto and Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón introduced the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act (H.R. 1522) which has now had two hearings in the House Natural Resources Committee, has substantial bipartisan support and is ready to be marked up. For the president and Senate majority leaders to be consistent in their discourse and action, they must address the need to pass legislation in this session of Congress to definitively end Puerto Rico’s failed territory status. Such legislation, whether or not it ends up being H.R. 1522, must include a direct and implementable offer of admission to statehood for voters in Puerto Rico. Anything less would leave a gaping hole in the national agenda to protect and advance voting rights for all Americans.
Simply put, one of the most important ways that Congress can expand voting rights in America today is to respect the will of most voters in Puerto Rico who have already requested full equality and democracy through statehood.
The right to vote is sacred in American democracy. That is exactly why the president and all Democratic leaders in Congress should acknowledge the legitimate call for equal rights for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, and to support and join the ongoing legislative efforts happening in the House.
Puerto Rico has been under the American flag for 124 years, have been U.S. citizens for 105 years, and have been denied equal voting rights in the federal government that makes and implements the laws we live under during that time. Generation after generation our sons and daughters have served in the U.S. military all over the world, with some paying the ultimate price, to defend democratic rights and freedoms that residents of Puerto Rico have been denied at home.
The debate on voting rights might be stalled in Congress for now, but Senator Manchin has an upcoming opportunity to make good on his commitment to work on issues where bipartisan agreements are possible when he takes up the topic of Puerto Rico in an upcoming hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
By working together, Congress can finally empower Puerto Rican voters to definitively decide their political status and future in relation to the federal government. When they do, Puerto Rico will be stronger and America will be stronger. The time to end unequal and unjust territory status for Puerto Rico is now.
George Laws Garcia is a former adviser to two governors of Puerto Rico and to Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the House of Representatives. He currently serves as the executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council. Follow him on Twitter: @LawsPR51._____________________________________________
Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we let ourselves be heard. Can you help us continue to take action?  Please consider donating– anything helps!
Thank you for your support, we will not stop working until the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico achieve the equal rights they deserve.  Yours Sincerely,
The PR51st Team
Puerto Rico Statehood Council
1000 Maine Avenue SW | Washington, District of Columbia 20024
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