Puerto Rico referendum for statehood passes in spite of opposition
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico's governor hopes to turn the U.S. territory into the 51st state.
Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island and a United States territory. As a territory, they only have one representative in Congress with limited voting power. One hundred years ago, the United States granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are not allowed to vote in presidential elections.
Governor Rossello To Demand Statehood From Congress
On Sunday, the territory voted on whether or not to become a state. Very few people turned out to vote but the vote for statehood won. The vote is non-binding, or does not legally require the United States to act.
A few political parties in Puerto Rico had called for their supporters to boycott the vote. That, along with low turnout, raised questions about whether or not the results are valid.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told a couple hundred supporters waving U.S. flags Sunday that he will create a special commission to name representatives to demand statehood from the U.S. Congress. Any changes to the island's political standing would have to come from Congress.
"The United States of America will have to obey the will of our people!" Rossello yelled to a crowd clutching U.S. flags and dancing to a song that promoted statehood.
But experts say it is highly unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress would acknowledge Sunday's results, let alone accept them. Puerto Rico tends to favor Democrats, so the Republican lawmakers in charge are not expected to want its people as new voters.
Voter Turnout Down
More than half a million people voted for statehood during Sunday's vote, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for free association or independence. More than 6,800 people voted for the current territorial standing. Voter turnout was just 23 percent.
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, noted Carlos Vargas Ramos. He is an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the previous vote in 2012.
"Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic about this" as they were five years ago, he said.
Rossello brushed aside those concerns, noting that the vote was a democratic process in which the majority prevailed. He questioned why more people did not come out to defend alternatives to statehood. Rossello also said that participation rates varied from 7 percent to 35 percent for states including Wisconsin and Hawaii when they were confirmed as states.
Major Opposition To Puerto Rican Statehood
Three of Puerto Rico's political groups, including the main group opposing the government, had called on their supporters to not vote. They labeled the vote a failure.
Former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who did not seek re-election last year, rejected Sunday's results. His party supports Puerto Rico remaining a territory.
"Whoever claims that statehood triumphed is being intellectually dishonest," he said. "The boycott defeated statehood."
Many believe the island's territorial standing has contributed to its economic crisis. The money problems have been largely caused by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives. Incentives are cuts in taxes, meant to encourage economic activity.
Puerto Rico does not pay the U.S. federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes. It receives less federal funding than U.S. states.
"We have been a colony for 500 years, and we have had U.S. citizenship for 100 years, but it's been a second class one," Rossello said.
Puerto Rico Facing A Financial Crisis
Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have fled to the U.S. mainland. They go to escape the island's money troubles and the lack of jobs.
Those who remain behind have faced new taxes and higher bills on an island where some costs are much higher than the U.S. mainland. Food is 22 percent more expensive. Public services cost 64 percent more.
Jose Rosa, age 62, said the island's situation is the reason he voted for the first time in such a vote. It is the fifth time a vote has been held on Puerto Rico's standing.
"We need a change in the way we're living," he said. "You can see the crisis."
No clear majority emerged in the first three votes on standing, with voters almost evenly divided between statehood and staying a territory. During the last vote in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a change. Sixty-one percent who answered the second question said they favored statehood. However, nearly half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the voting results were not valid.
The results of the newest vote could lead to similar claims, Vargas said.
Whether those results are valid depends on the audience that may be receiving them, he said. "If the advocates for statehood for Puerto Rico want to address the results to the U.S. Congress ... then the results may appear weak, particularly when five years ago 834,000 voters supported statehood for the island."
If the audience is people allowed to vote in Puerto Rico, they spoke louder by not voting, he said.