Elections in Puerto Rico:
No Unicameralism Referendum on July 9, 2007

Home ]  [ Español ]

The unicameralism referendum scheduled for July 9, 2007 was not held. On Friday, June 29, 2007, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled that it could not force the Legislative Assembly to initiate a constitutional amendment process to establish a unicameral legislative system, which had been defeated in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives in January 2007.

The full text of the Supreme Court opinion (2007 TSPR 133) is available in Spanish here (link to the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch).

Historical Background

Act No. 477 of September 23, 2004 provided for a referendum to be held on July 10, 2005, in which Puerto Rican voters were to indicate if they favored changing the Legislative Assembly to a single house, or maintain the bicameral legislature established by the 1917 Jones Act, which had been retained (with modifications) by the 1952 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A vote for unicameralism would constitute a mandate for the Legislative Assembly to hold a second referendum on July 9, 2007 on the constitutional amendment that would establish a unicameral legislature by 2009.

However, after the 2004 general election, in which the ruling Popular Democratic Party (PPD) narrowly retained the governorship but the opposition New Progressive Party (PNP) won control of both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, it became evident that neither of the two major parties was particularly interested in holding the legislative system referendum. Nevertheless, both parties differed on how to deal with the issue: the PNP Senate and House majorities favored repealing the referendum enabling act, while the administration of Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá (PPD) preferred to postpone the event. The governor and the legislature were unable to reach an agreement, and in March 2005 Acevedo-Vilá vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to cancel the referendum - which therefore would be held after all.

During the referendum campaign, most PPD leaders advocated a vote in favor of unicameralism, while the bulk of the PNP leadership promoted abstention or (in some cases) a vote for retaining the existing system. However, several former PPD leaders defended the bicameral system, and in general PPD support for unicameralism was rather lukewarm. Meanwhile, the small Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) declared itself in favor of unicameralism, and there were also a number of organizations from the so-called "civil society" promoting the adoption of a unicameral system.

The Commonwealth Elections Commission (CEE) had numerous problems managing the event, mostly (but not exclusively) regarding recruitment and training of poll workers. The electoral agency also had to confront public apathy over the event: there were few new voter registration requests, and the number of absentee ballot requests was nearly insignificant (a total of eighty-nine, according to press reports). As if that were not enough, on election day some polling places never opened - a unprecedented development in the Island's recent electoral history.

As the date of the referendum drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that the electorate wasn't interested in the event (in fact, visitor traffic to this website at the time of the referendum was considerably below the levels attained for previous election events), and supporters of unicameralism, which had previously emphasized the importance of having a high voter turnout, changed their tune and began to insist that "only those who voted counted" - evidently anticipating (correctly) that turnout would be markedly lower than in recent events. Meanwhile, CEE officials continued to promote voter turnout, insisting that it would reach at least fifty percent... Naturally, the Commission wanted a high voter turnout, since they knew that otherwise they would be held partly to blame for the event's failure - which turned out to be the case.

From a strictly legal point of view, unicameralism activists were right in pointing out that abstentions didn't count: in Puerto Rico there is no turnout requirement to validate the outcome of an election event, and the referendum enabling law clearly stated a majority of votes cast for a given option would constitute the will of the people. However, this argument ignores the fact that Puerto Rican election events have been generally characterized by a high voter turnout, which has strengthened them with an aura of symbolic legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

In the end, only 22.6% of the registered electorate voted in the July 10, 2005 referendum - the lowest turnout figure in Puerto Rico's electoral history, vastly below the 81.7% that had gone to the polls just a few months earlier for the general election. Nevertheless, unicameralism scored an overwhelming victory with 83.8% of the votes cast, prevailing in all Senate and House districts, as well as all of the Island's 78 municipalities and 110 election precincts.

As expected, proponents of unicameralism insisted that, irrespective of the low turnout, the Legislative Assembly had a popular mandate to implement the unicameral system, but the PNP majorities in the House and Senate dragged their feet on the issue for the remainder of 2005 and most of 2006; often, PNP legislators argued that there was no mandate in light of the low voter turnout in the referendum, disregarding what the referendum enabling law stated. Nonetheless, unicameralism activists continued to lobby the legislature, and in January 2007 won an important victory when the Senate - where the PNP majority had split into bitterly opposed factions in early-to-mid 2005 - passed a unicameralism bill. However, the House of Representatives soundly rejected the measure shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, the unicameralist groups had gone to court in an attempt to force the legislature to pass the constitutional amendment, but the Superior Court as well as the Appellate Court and finally the Supreme Court have ruled that they cannot order the legislature to act upon the issue. Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that the provisions of Act No. 477 which gave the legislature a mandate to hold a second unicameralism referendum in the event the 2005 referendum produced a majority in favor of the option (as was the case) were contrary to the amendment process set forth by Section 1 of Article VII of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, which grants the Legislative Assembly the right to introduce constitutional amendments; these must be passed by at least two-thirds of the members of both houses, and then submitted to the voters for approval in a referendum. In addition, the Court indicated that in any event it lacks the means to enforce the mandate, since legislators are protected by parliamentary immunity.

It should be noted that even if the Supreme Court or the House of Representatives had reconsidered their positions on the issue, it would not have been possible to hold the unicameralism referendum on July 9, 2007: the CEE needed about three months to organize the referendum, and it hadn't been able to do so since the agency had neither a legal mandate nor assigned funds to that end.