Puerto Ricans Voted For Statehood. Now What?

This post comes courtesy DDHQ contributor Alexander Marrero-Laureano. Follow him on Twitter @alexmarrero

Or perhaps, so what?

The US territory of Puerto Rico on Sunday held a referendum on the different status options for the island. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. Territory since 1898, a product of the Spanish American War. Until 1952 the president of the U.S. decided who was the island’s governor, but that changed when Congress approved a Puerto Rican constitution and established the ‘Commonwealth’ of Puerto Rico, or ‘Estado Libre Asociado’ (Free Associated State). While this allowed Puerto Ricans to govern themselves, they are still subject to any laws passed by Congress, without having voting representation in it. For all intents and purposes, Puerto Rico very much remains a modern-day colony.

For decades, many have pushed for Puerto Rican statehood. The first referendum was held in 1967, where the existing territorial status won 60% of the vote, to 39% for statehood. The issue was not brought up again until 1993, when Governor Pedro Rosselló, father of current Governor Ricardo Rosselló, held another referendum. This time support for the existing territorial status went down to 48%, while support for statehood increased to 46%.

In 1998, a third referendum was held. However, opponents of this referendum managed to get a ‘None of the above’ option on the ballot and held a campaign for people to vote against it. They succeeded by getting 50%, while statehood garnered 47% of the vote. The fourth referendum was held in 2012. This one was structured as two questions: 1. ‘Do you wish to remain with the current status? Yes or No’ and 2. ‘Which of these non-territorial options do you prefer? Statehood, Independence or Sovereignty’. ‘No’ won with 54% of the vote, and Statehood won the second question with 61% of the vote. However, a new pro-commonwealth administration was elected and they did not follow up on the topic of status.

On Sunday, a fifth referendum was held. It was initially boycotted by the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party because an option for keeping the current territorial status was not included on the ballot. Even after this option was included, the PDP maintained this boycott, arguing that the vote was designed to favor statehood.

Thanks to a newly implemented electronic tallying system, 90% of the results were counted within two hours of polls closing. With a low turnout of 23%, Statehood overwhelmingly received 97% of the vote, while Independence and Current Status options split the remaining 3%.

So, who won the Puerto Rico Status referendum? It depends on who you ask. Supporters of the boycott are saying the boycott was successful and these results should not be taken seriously. And they may have a point. Although the turnout is in line with turnout in non-General Elections, Sunday’s referendum was the lowest number of total votes statehood has received.

Supporters of statehood will argue that only those that actually vote get to have a say, and that it’s clear that this was an overwhelming vote for statehood.

What’s the path going forward? Last week Gov. Rosselló signed the “Law for Equality and Congressional Representation of the U.S. Citizens in Puerto Rico” or the so called “Tennessee Plan”, with the purpose of establishing a commission, composed of 2 Senators and 5 Representatives, to be named by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. This commission would then go to Congress to fight for statehood and admission to the Union.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida) were in Puerto Rico as observers of the vote and expressed that they would take those results to Congress with Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez (R-Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico non-voting member of the House of Representatives) , in order to promote a solution for the status of Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, expect the PDP to lobby against all statehood efforts, using low turnout in the most recent referendum as their main argument.