What We Can Learn from Puerto Rico

by Jais Mehaji // Published June 15, 2011

Yesterday, President Obama made a historic visit to the American territory of Puerto Rico; the first time a U.S president visited the island for an official state visit since JFK in 1961. Despite the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are U.S citizens and serve in the U.S. military in high percentages, they cannot vote in presidential general elections, which explains the prevailing feeling of political exclusion. Regarding the controversy about the island’s status, Obama reiterated his commitment to Puerto Rico’s self-determination through a referendum whose results he promised his administration would stand by. Political analysts were quick to characterize the historic visit as a way for Obama to woo Hispanic voters, whose demographic boost in important swing states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and, in particular, Florida, has become manifest in the last few years. The Latino vote is key to Obama winning re-election in 2012, as it would also be if elections were held under a national popular vote.

Although Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, the U.S has much to learn from the island’s electoral system, which stands out as the only American state or territory to use an alternative to winner-take-all elections. The territory, which comprises approximately 3.8 million citizens, employs a form of proportional voting to elect members of its Legislative Assembly. Along with other practices like making Election Day a holiday, this system has encouraged one of the highest voter turnouts in the hemisphere, and in the 2000 elections, a rate of 82 percent among registered voters and 74.2 percent of voting eligible population– a higher rate than any of the 50 states, and 23 percent higher than the national rate.

Voting in Puerto Rico for the upper house relies on the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system, which means there is no transferable successive preference, as it would occur in Ireland and Cambridge (MA) that use the single transferable vote system of choice voting.  For the lower house, the rule boosts smaller parties through a variation of a party list proportional voting. What this means for the political process is that political parties play a more important role than on the U.S mainland. Parties, not elected officials, make decisions such as replacing Senate vacancies. In addition to bringing attention to the U.S’s political relationship to the island, President Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico sheds light on an electoral system that merits more national attention and discussion. Certainly if voter turnout is a gauge of democratic health, Puerto Rico’s voting rules should be considered in more parts of the nation.