On Sunday the people of Puerto Rico went to the polls and cast their ballots for change.
Sunday’s ballot gave voters three options:
- Everything stays the same. Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States and the people of the territory continue to receive most of the rights and benefits of being Americans, without being asked to pay federal income tax. Also, while Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico cannot vote for President and do not have “voting” representation in Congress – they are actually U.S. citizens and if they move to the mainland they do get to vote and they are asked to pay federal income tax.
- Puerto Rico asks for Independence. This would see Puerto Rico sever ties to the United States and the island would become an independent nation.
- Puerto Rico asks for statehood. This last option would see Puerto Rico push for statehood, making the island the 51st American state. Puerto Rico leans left and would likely offer the Democrats 2 more Senators, plus a few Congressmen (the population of Puerto Rico means they would be entitled to about 5 Representatives to the House).
The vote was overwhelmingly won by supporters of the 3rd option. 97% of the Puerto Ricans who voted on Sunday, voted for their island home to become the 51st American state. It was a huge victory for statehood supporters, but sadly, it comes with a pretty big caveat.
Only about 500,000 people voted on Sunday (or roughly 1/4 of eligible voters). There are more than 2 million registered voters on the island, and in 2012 1.9 million people voted. The reason turnout was so depressed was that 2 of the 3 major political parties on the island had encouraged their supporters to boycott the referendum, and many of them obviously did. The only party that encouraged their supporters to vote was the leading New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) who support statehood, and it seems that most of the island’s voters to their cues from their party’s.
The island’s Governor and their representative to Congress have both promised to use the result to press Puerto Rico’s cause in Washington, D.C. and to encourage Congress to accept the island’s request for statehood.
“The federal government cannot ignore the results of this plebiscite and the will of our people. It would be quite ironic to demand democracy in other parts of the world but not in their own backyard. This is our home,” Governor Ricardo Rosselló told the national media. The island’s representative to Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, agreed with Rosselló saying, “As Resident Commissioner I will take this to Congress and defend it. I am taking it not just to Congress but to other forums, such as the Organization of American States.”
However, the acrimony over the vote and the extremely low voter turnout will likely be a major stumbling block for Congress. While the Democrat Party would no doubt love to add the left-leaning island to the roll of states, they will be vexed about way the most recent vote was handled and by the fact that the left leaning parties in the state all boycotted the vote. Republicans may want to honor Puerto Rico’s legally voted upon request, even as they worry about the new state’s leftward tilt, but there will likely be division within the party on the vote…
All of this means that while Puerto Rico has voted for statehood, and their current leadership will press their cause, there is no guarantee that the island will become our 51st state anytime soon. But statehood supporters aren’t ready to give up – one voter told NBC Latino that the opposition should have participated in the vote, and that by not doing so they abdicated their right to complain about the results.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t participate and you don’t have a say. There weren’t too many people voting when I went this morning, but I live in a town outside of San Juan controlled by one of the opposition parties and they had urged people to boycott the plebiscite, so many people stayed away. But that doesn’t matter to me. Voting is our right and I am exercising my right. And this is just the beginning of a process to tell the United States how we feel and that we want to be a part of the States. We deserve to be treated equally like any other U.S. citizen. But nothing happens overnight. This is just the beginning.”
Just the beginning indeed.