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Political Status

Puerto Rico Chooses Statehood amid Low Turnout: What’s Next?


In a non-binding referendum held in Puerto Rico on June 11, 2017, 97% of voters chose statehood. However, less than a quarter of eligible voters turned out to vote. This was the lowest participation rate in such a plebiscite and the second-lowest turnout of any election held in Puerto Rico in at least half a century.

This was the fifth time that residents of Puerto Rico have been asked to go to the polls to choose their future political status. According to the numbers presented by the State Election Commission of Puerto Rico, around 520,000 people participated. This represents just 23% of 2.2 million registered voters,.

Weeks before the plebiscite, political and social organizations called for a boycott on the referendum. They considered the plebiscite a waste of state resources, especially at a time when the island is undergoing one of its worse economic crises. Statehood supporters may have been the only ones campaigning.

One of the biggest proponents of statehood is Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló. His gubernatorial campaign was based on the promise that he was going to end Puerto Rico’s territorial status and make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the United States. To fulfill his promise, the governor and the majority of the local legislature, all of whom are in the same political party as the governor, approved the implementation of the plebiscite.

Funds had been allocated by the Obama administration for the implementation of the plebiscite. However, for Puerto Rico to have access to these funds, the United States Department of Justice had to approve the ballot and the education campaign about different voting options that preceded it.

In April 2017, the DOJ recommended that the government of Puerto Rico make changes to the ballot and the education materials in order for them to approve the plebiscite. One of the recommendations was to include Commonwealth status, while the other recommendations was to change language about U.S. citizenship. The local government approved these changes, but the DOJ never responded to state if it was going to approve the revised plebiscite or not. Still, the Puerto Rican government continued with plans to hold the plebiscite.

Voters overwhelmingly chose statehood in a landslide of 502,616 votes. Meanwhile, 7,779 voted for independence/free associated state, and 6,821 voted in favor of keeping the current territorial status. However, the historically low turnout calls these results into question. In contrast, for previous plebiscites, the participation rate has been between 70% and 78%.

According to Governor Rosselló, “[t]he expression of the majority that participates in the electoral processes prevails.” Furthermore, he notes that when Wisconsin became a state, only 17% of the population participated, when Arizona became a state, only 7% of the population participated, and when Hawaii and Alaska became a state, only 35% and 21%, respectively, participated in the vote.

In the next weeks, the fight between statehood supporters and boycotters will continue. In the meantime, Congress will determine whether it will consider the results or ignore them.  

In the end, this battle will be won by the faction that best persuades Congress, and if Congress is willing to give statehood to a territory with a predominantly Hispanic population and which is going through one of its worst economic crises.

Indeed, the current crisis is forcing thousands of Puerto Ricans to move off the island. Services are being affected, and poverty continues to worsen. Apart from the status debate, in the next weeks Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy-like case will continue and the economic future of the territory will be determined in the courts.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 2:30pm