"On November 6, 54 percent of Puerto Rico’s voters called for an end to the island’s ’commonwealth’ status..."

By Christina Duffy Ponsa

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On November 6, while a majority of the American electorate was casting its ballot for four more years, a majority of the electorate in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was casting its ballot for not one more minute. In a plebiscite addressing Puerto Rico’s troubled relationship with the United States, 54 percent of the voters called for an end to the island’s current “commonwealth” status—a status falling somewhere in between statehood and independence, though where exactly it falls, no one seems to know. . . . And among those who proceeded to choose an alternative, a robust majority of 61 percent opted for statehood. It was an historic vote: The island’s first-ever majority vote in favor of joining the Union as the 51st state. Yet the results of the plebiscite immediately gave rise to controversy, with statehood opponents complaining that the ballot was flawed both procedurally (they didn’t like its two-step structure) and substantively (they didn’t like how it defined the political status options). These criticisms came as little surprise: Commonwealth supporters have made an art of objecting to any process that could potentially yield a victory for statehood—including earlier processes involving just one step and different definitions of the options. Indeed, both the two-step process and the definitions this time around were consistent with recommendations in reports produced by both the Bush White House Task Force on Puerto Rico and the Obama White House Task Force on Puerto Rico. Moreover, the critics have not helped their cause by throwing in a smattering of less plausible complaints. (For instance, because the governor-elect doesn’t support statehood himself, the plebiscite didn’t count. Or it might look like statehood won, but statehood actually lost—perhaps they’re reading the results upside down?) Even so, their objections have thrown sand in the gears, and a true resolution to Puerto Rico’s “status problem” likely remains a long way off. This, too, is unsurprising: Puerto Rico’s legal and political relationship with the United States has from the start been the source of stormy and contentious debate. Annexed by the United States after the war with Spain in 1898, Puerto Rico has been a “territory” of the United States for nearly 115 years, and since 1917, persons born in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens at birth. Because the island is not a state of the Union, however, these 4 million U.S. citizens have no voting representation in the federal government: no presidential vote, no Senators, and no Representatives except for one non-voting “Resident Commissioner” in the House. (They also don’t pay federal income taxes, but they do pay other federal taxes, and very high local taxes to boot.) Little wonder that a majority of Puerto Ricans want an end to the island’s current status. What they want instead, though, is a thornier question. In 1993, “commonwealth” and statehood split the vote 48 percent-46 percent (that’s right—virtually no Puerto Ricans support independence), and in 1998, a majority of 50.3 percent succeeded mainly in confusing matters by voting for “None of the Above”—a result that led to nothing except more of the same. Now, a clear majority among those who expressed a preference chose statehood. While statehood supporters are not sanguine about what comes next, they hope that at the very least, the result of this most recent plebiscite will be remembered as the beginning of the end of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition.

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On December 13, 2012 at 11:18 PM, Phillip Arroyo wrote:

As Chairman of the Young Democrats of America Hispanic Caucus I must say your comments are right on! This is a civil rights issue and the people of PR clearly rejected the status quo and demandes equality through statehood. Great article!

On January 18, 2013 at 10:44 AM, José A. Cabrera wrote:

Excellent perspective by this distinguished scholar of Puerto Rico's territorial status problem.

On January 18, 2013 at 10:49 AM, Jose wrote:

I agree with your comments and suggest that you contribute to the discussions by publishing them in other forums. The colonial status of PR is a disgrace for the democracy of the US.

On January 18, 2013 at 11:33 AM, nathaniel wrote:

I agree with the author. It is time to end the colonial relationship imposed on 4 million US Citizens of Puerto Rico. Many of their national guard and reserves units get deployed to spread freedom and defend the american ideals abroad but receive none from a Federal Government for which they have no Representation in Congress, or the right to vote for their Commander in Chief. The current territorial status has lost the consent of its citizens by 54% on a Plebiscite that had a turnout of around 80%, a rare turn out in comparison with the others states.

On January 19, 2013 at 7:49 AM, Mario Ramos Méndez wrote:

How can I get your essay about plebiscite results? Saludos.

On January 20, 2013 at 3:37 AM, J. Alejandro Amoros wrote:

The author needs to consider this. The ballot design was an attempt to make statehood appear more popular, the actual election results demonstrated just the opposite. Of the 1,878,969 Puerto Ricans who made it to the polls, only 834,191 (about 44 percent) showed an interest in becoming America’s 51st state. Twenty-four percent marked their ballots for sovereign commonwealth, 4 percent for independence, and 27 percent left that part of the ballot blank in protest. Indeed, some 498,604 Puerto Rican voters refused to answer. Any way you slice it, roughly 830,000 votes out of 1.9 million does not a consensus make. The 44 percent vote for statehood is similar to the 1993 and 1998 referendums, where statehood earned 46 percent and 47 percent of the vote, respectively.

On January 21, 2013 at 9:01 PM, Jose O. Olmos wrote:

The reality is that 970,910 US Citizens voted against the current colonial status. This is a clear signal that the US Citizens of PR ara against maintaining a relationship that is wrong and goes against the true democratic nature of the USA. This are more votes than the ones that the current status recieved back in 1952 when it was created. Pretending to ignore the will of the people by minimizing the true democratic wish of the people is irrational. Following on the Presidents Inaugural speech it is time for puertorrican US Citizens to be equal to all other citizens.

On January 31, 2013 at 9:15 AM, Guillermo San Antonio Acha wrote:

This article seems to be more a pro statehood manifesto than an attempt to understand the results. The author chose to ignore the real data. Alejandro Amoros, on his January 20th comments, got it right.

On February 05, 2013 at 7:23 PM, Morton A Winkel wrote:

I have more than a casual connection with Puerto Rico, having served there in the US Army following my law school graduation in 1954. I have two observations regarding statehood. First, the Republicans would never allow it (eg. Alaska and Hawaii), and second in my visit there last year there seemed to be a precipitous drop in familiarity with the English language compared to the 1950's.

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