On June 11th, the Puerto Rican people voted in a non-binding referendum, about whether to remain a US territory, to become independent, or to request statehood. 97% of voters indicated their preference for statehood. This is not the first time that Puerto Rico voted for statehood, having voted in favor in 2012 in a referendum widely panned for its limited options and poor wording. In light of this new victory for the statehood movement, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello is pushing for Congress to vote to accept the territory into the Union as the 51st state.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico does not have representation in Congress, although Puerto Ricans themselves do have US citizenship. If a Puerto Rican were to move to a state they would be able to vote for president from that state, but Puerto Rico itself has no representation in the electoral college and thus no vote for president. Puerto Ricans also do not pay any federal income taxes, although they do pay a variety of other federal taxes, and are eligible for federal welfare benefits.
In this election, only 23% of eligible voters cast ballots, with every party that opposed statehood urging supporters to boycott the referendum. Parties in favor of total independence as well as parties in favor of a commonwealth status both objected to the wording of the referendum, which referred to Puerto Rico as a “colony” and did not provide an option for voters to indicate a preference for a greater commonwealth status. Consequently, the validity of the results is questioned, and commentors both outside and within Puerto Rico have questioned whether the votes of only a fifth of the electorate provide a legitimate mandate for statehood.
It seems very likely then that Congress will react to Puerto Rican demands for statehood with skepticism. The low turnout for the plebiscite alone provides grounds to question whether integration is truly the will of the people. Moreover, the Puerto Rican economy is in shambles, with unemployment hovering above 12%, negative economic growth for the past decade, a declining population, lower GDP per capita than any US state, and more debt per capita than any US state. Puerto Rico additionally declared bankruptcy earlier this year becoming the first US state or territory ever to do so. With no clear mandate from the Puerto Rican people for statehood, no mandate at all from U.S. citizens outside of Puerto Rico for statehood, and significant financial burdens to be risked by adding Puerto Rico as a state, it seems unlikely that Congress will vote to approve statehood any time soon.
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