Residents of Puerto Rico Tuesday voted on a ballot question that could ultimately remake the American flag.
In an August vote, a majority of voters voted in opposition to continuing Puerto Rico’s current status within the United States, triggering a second round of balloting Tuesday to seek the path forward. In the vote, 61 percent of voters favored seeking statehood, while 33 percent supported becoming an “associated free state.” 6 percent backed independence.
“We made history with this plebiscite,” said Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, D/PNP-P.R., the island’s representative in Congress. “The ball is now in Congress’ court and Congress will have to react to this result.”
Still, the ultimate impact of the vote remains unclear. Voters ousted Gov. Luis Fortuño, who is affiliated with the Republican Party and Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, in favor of Commonwealth Sen. Alejandro García Padilla, D/PDP-At Large, whose Popular Democratic Party has favored a greater degree of autonomy for Puerto Rico.
From Colony to Commonwealth to…?
The status of Puerto Rico has been a contentious issue in the commonwealth since the United States took over the island colony from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War. For half a century, the United States ruled Puerto Rico via an appointed military governor, until finally granting the commonwealth the right to choose its own governor in 1947.
Puerto Rico has held three previous plebiscites since seeking to gauge support for a change in status. In 1967, voters overwhelmingly backed the current “commonwealth” association. That status was narrowly reaffirmed in 1993. In 1998, voters backed “none of the above” over all options on the ballot, including commonwealth, statehood and independence.
In 2011, the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization called on the United States to expedite the process by which Puerto Rico could move toward self-determination.
The vote was not without its critics. Opponents of statehood pointed out that 450,000 voters chose not to vote on the second ballot question. They suggested that those who favored retaining commonwealth status may have chosen not to vote on the second ballot. “This represents an overwhelming majority against statehood,” said Luis Delgado Rodriguez, who opposes statehood.
Opponents also pointed to Fortuño’s defeat as a reason to question statehood’s popularity.
Nevertheless, Pierluisi said that he intended to bring a measure before Congress supporting statehood.
Congress has the general right to admit states to the union by legislation, but some hurdles remain. Puerto Ricans are already full American citizens at birth, but the commonwealth’s population is predominantly Spanish-speaking, something that could rankle the nativist wing of the Republican Party. Republicans may also be loath to move Puerto Rico toward statehood given Tuesday’s presidential election results, as Puerto Rican voters in Florida may have put Obama over the top in the Sunshine State.
That vote signals a problem for Republicans — Puerto Rico tends to lean Democratic. If it became a state, Puerto Rico would gain two Senators. Puerto Rico has a larger population than Connecticut, which currently sends five members to the House of Representatives — meaning that Puerto Rico could have 7 electoral votes that lean Democratic.
Still, many Republicans have indicated their support for statehood, including Mitt Romney himself, who told Fortuño that he would support statehood if Puerto Rico wanted it. Republicans have noted that Puerto Rico is a predominantly Catholic, and that they might be able to win votes by appealing on social issues.
Politically, Democrats would be more likely to benefit from statehood than Republicans, but there are still issues that remain. President Obama and Democrats in Congress are unlikely to move forward on statehood if they feel that the question is still an open one. With the questions surrounding the vote, it is possible that Democrats may choose not to act rather than push forward for statehood, and inadvertently rankle Puerto Rican voters on the mainland. And Puerto Rico remains significantly poorer than the United States as a whole, meaning that statehood would mean an immediate jump in aid to residents there — something both parties may be concerned about during tough economic times.
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