Gore Could Have Won with Puerto Rico

Just three weeks before the election, the Clinton-Gore administration squandered what may have been Gore's best chip in the poker game for the presidency -- eight electoral votes from the island of Puerto Rico.

After the U.S. territory won a 10 year court battle for the right to vote in Presidential elections, the Clinton-Gore administration had the right revoked. "While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the Constitution does not provide for residents of territories to be able to vote in Presidential elections," Attorney General Janet Reno said in a statement issued after the federal District Court of Puerto Rico gave Puerto Rico the vote.

The reversal cost Gore the eight electoral votes he was sure to win from the island's 2.4 million registered voters, 80 percent of whom were registered Democrats. Their eight votes would have given him seven more than he needed to win the presidency. But a few days before the election, Puerto Rico's legislature burned their ballots.

"It was a democratic holocaust," said Attorney Gregorio Igartua, who was the lead plaintiff and counsel for the Puerto Rican voters who filed the suit. "But Clinton and Gore -- they are victims of their own discrimination now."

Numerous courts have denied Puerto Rico the vote on the grounds the Constitution only allows U.S. states to choose Electoral College members. (Washington, D.C. is the only exception; a 1961 Constitutional amendment permits the District to send three electors).

The Puerto Rico district court bucked the tide by ruling that "the right to vote is a fundamental right of citizenship." But a three-judge panel from the Boston-based First Circuit, which heard the government's appeal, reaffirmed precedent. Puerto Rico must become a state or the U.S. Constitution must be amended, the court said, before the island's citizens may participate in presidential elections.

Iguartua has appealed the three-judge panel's decision to the rest of the judges who preside over the First Circuit. He said he doesn't know when they will make their ruling.

Though the Clinton-Gore administration opposes the vote for Puerto Rico, the administration says it would accept Puerto Rico into the union if Puerto Rico wanted to become a state. "We pledge to support the right of the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to choose freely, and in concert with the U.S. Congress, their relationship with the United States," the 2000 Democratic platform says.

But Puerto Rico has never given any clear indication it wants to be a state. During a 1998 straw poll allowing Puerto Rico's voters to express their views of their territorial status, only 47 percent voted for statehood.

During its 100 years as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has never voted in a presidential election, nor been allowed to choose congressional representatives or senators. But these restrictions don't bar Puerto Ricans from office. "Any citizen of Puerto Rico who was born in Puerto Rico or in any other U.S. concern, can become the President," said Georgetown law professor Alex Aleinikoff, an expert in U.S. territorial law.

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