Why Most Puerto Ricans Boycotted the Vote for Statehood


Puerto Rican protesters demanding independence.

Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly for statehood Sunday with 97% of the people who turned out supporting the option over several offered, including “free association” and independence. The only problem is that a mere 23% of the island’s more than 2 million people actually showed up to vote. The opposition parties organized a boycott.

Options on the ballot included remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state or entering free association/independence. Free association is an official affiliation with the United States. Typically it would include Puerto Rico still receiving military assistance and funding but the ballot says the terms would be agreed upon by the two countries as sovereign nations.

Most notable and prominent of the opposition parties pushing for a boycott were the supporters of an “enhanced commonwealth” status.

The commonwealth party pushed the boycott because they were afraid statehood might win due to the island’s serious economic problems. Financial need is a driving force of the vote for statehood.

In three of the four referendums, Puerto Ricans voted against statehood but financial times are different now. They are $73 billion in debt and islanders are fleeing for the U.S. making the situation worse.

The supporters of the “enhanced commonwealth” believed that by boycotting the vote, it renders it mostly null and void. Does it? Most stayed home.

Puerto Rico has held four plebiscites before. The “commonwealth” party has won before, and the U.S. Congress has responded by saying that their “enhanced commonwealth” is unconstitutional, and cannot be put into place.

After the 2012 referendum, the “commonwealth” party was able to stir up enough controversy that the U.S. government determined to hold a final vote. This vote was intended to resolve the status of Puerto Rico.

Under a proposed “Commonwealth” government, Puerto Rico can ignore federal laws, sign treaties with foreign countries, and receive federal funding with no strings attached, all while possessing irrevocable U.S. citizenship and forcing the U.S. to maintain Puerto Rican policies it may no longer want by mandating a “mutual consent” clause in an initial U.S.-Puerto Rico pact.

United States officials representing all three branches of government have rejected “Commonwealth” proposals as unconstitutional and unfeasible.

Puerto Rican residents have been U.S. citizens since 1917 (thanks to the Jones Act), so they receive many of the same benefits and protections, with just a few differences.

They can’t vote in the presidential election, they have a nonvoting delegate in D.C., they have their own governor and legislative body and Puerto Ricans only have to pay federal income taxes on work they’ve done in the States, and not at home.

Puerto Rico gets U.S. military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as an official state gets.

Citizens pay into Social Security and have access to Medicare and Medicaid, but instead of being eligible for Supplemental Security Income assistance, low-income, elderly and blind or disabled people can get help from a similar program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Three of four times, Puerto Rico residents voted against statehood (in 1967, 1993 and 1998).

In a 2012 referendum the majority of voters for the first time chose statehood, but it didn’t go anywhere. (Some argued the results should have been considered a “no” since more than one-third of voters left the part about alternative status blank.)

Now they have voted for statehood again but 77% of the voters stayed home. The governor of Puerto Rico will push Congress to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, but is that what the people want?

We are “claiming our equal rights as American citizens,” Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló from the New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) says.

For Puerto Rico to become a U.S. state, Congress would need to pass a statute laying out the transition process. If Congress does not pass a statute, Puerto Rico’s status will remain as it is.

No matter which way it goes, Puerto Ricans will continue to be U.S. citizens.

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