Puerto Rican voters support US statehood

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flag of Puerto Rico.
Image: Alex Barth.

For the first time in the US territory's history, voters in Puerto Rico apparently supported statehood in a non-binding referendum on Tuesday. The outcome, however, remains uncertain as various politicians interpret the referendum results differently.

Puerto Ricans were previously asked to vote on their political status in 1967, 1993, and 1998. Supporters of statehood did not win a majority in any of those votes. Spain ceded control over the territory to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, but residents cannot vote in presidential or Senate elections. They have only limited representation in the House of Representatives. Since 1952 the island has been a commonwealth, a self-governing unincorporated territory. Puerto Ricans currently do not pay federal income tax, but they are charged payments to Social Security and are eligible for federal welfare benefits.

Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico's Secretary of State, said economic factors and a declining population contributed to the push for statehood. The federal government currently sends millions of dollars per year to Puerto Rico in social aid, where income per person is only half that of any state. Puerto Ricans have been moving from the island to the mainland United States, where 58 percent of Puerto Ricans now reside. "I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need," said McClintock.

The ballot measure, which coincided with the general election held throughout the United States, was split into two parts. The first question asked whether the voters preferred to maintain the current political status of Puerto Rico. 54 percent — over 900,000 people — voted against the current commonwealth status.

Independent of the first question, voters were then asked to choose from three options: statehood, independence, or semi-autonomous "sovereign free association". Of those who made a choice, 61 percent supported statehood, 33 percent supported "sovereign free association", and 6 percent supported independence.

Nearly 500,000 people, or a third of those voting, declined to answer this second question, making it difficult to interpret the results. Moreover, the pro-statehood governor — one of the most prominent advocates for statehood — lost his bid for reelection. Governor-elect Garcia Padilla, in favor of maintaining the current commonwealth status, pledged to convene a constitutional assembly to address the matter in 2014. Another referendum would follow with support from the US Congress, whose approval is needed for Puerto Rico to become a state.