SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans who voted for U.S. statehood in a nonbinding referendum Sunday are “claiming our equal rights as American citizens,” Puerto Rico’s governor says.
Ninety-seven percent of the votes favored statehood but voter participation was just 23 percent after opposition parties called for a boycott of what they called a “rigged” process in part over the ballot language.
Congress, the only body that can approve new states, will ultimately decide whether the status of the U.S. commonwealth changes.
“It will be up to this new generation of Puerto Ricans to demand and claim in Washington the end of the current improper colonial relationship, and begin a transition process to fully incorporate Puerto Rico as the next state of the Union,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party said in a statement Sunday.
For Puerto Rico to become a U.S. state, Congress would need to pass a statute laying out the transition process. If Congress does not pass a statute, Puerto Rico’s status will remain as it is.
Options on the weekend referendum included remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state or entering free association/independence.
Free association is an official affiliation with the United States. Typically, it would include Puerto Rico still receiving military assistance and funding but the ballot says the terms would be agreed upon by the two countries as sovereign nations.
But the ballot’s previous language prompted calls by opposition parties to boycott what they saw as a rigged vote.
Sunday’s ballot was a revised version after the Department of Justice wrote to Rosello in April saying the referendum ballot at the time incorrectly omitted Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth status as a ballot option, offering only statehood or free association/independence.
The previous ballot incorrectly claimed statehood was “the only option” for Puerto Ricans to secure their American citizenship.
The DOJ in its letter pointed out that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizenship by birth, asking that the “potentially misleading” statement be removed.
The ballot was later changed to include “current territorial status” as an option, but the call for a boycott remained.
Four previous plebiscites, or popular votes, have been held to decide the commonwealth’s status in relation to the United States, with a majority of voters for the first time choosing statehood in 2012.
Fifty-four percent of voters in that referendum backed changing Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. In a separate question, 61 percent chose statehood as the alternative, compared with 33 percent for the semi-autonomous “sovereign free association” and 6 percent for outright independence.
Some argued the results should have been considered a “no” since more than one-third of voters left the part about alternative status blank. Congress did not act on that referendum.
In 2012, around 1.8 million people voted — a turnout of 77.5 percent — but State Electoral Commission figures show that just 518,000 people, or 23 percent of eligible voters, voted in Sunday’s referendum.
According to the commission’s numbers, 300,000 fewer people voted for statehood on Sunday than in 2012.
Hector Ferrer, leader of Popular Democratic Party, said eight out of 10 “stayed home” or “went to the beach” instead of voting.
“The governor lost, statehood lost,” Ferrer said. “They lost 300,000 votes in four years.”
Rossello contested the commission’s figures, saying the electorate was 1.6 million — meaning turnout was 33 percent.
In a statement, the governor said he would travel to the U.S. capital to speak with Congress, the White House, and other agencies regarding the referendum results.
“We will now take these results to Washington, D.C., with the strong support of not only a duly executed electoral exercise, but also of a contingency of national and international observers, who can attest to the fact that the process was fair, well organized and democratic,” Rossello said.
“From today going forward, the federal Government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico. It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico came under U.S. control in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. It has its own governor and legislative body and it became a U.S. commonwealth territory with its own constitution in 1952.
Its commonwealth status means Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws, though island residents are exempt from some federal taxes.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, however, as residents of a commonwealth territory instead of a state they can’t vote for president in the U.S. general election.
The territory has a nonvoting delegate in Congress, called a resident commissioner.
It also gets U.S. military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as official states receive.