Feature: Puerto Rico, 51st state?

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The Puerto Rican flag

On November 6th, most Americans citizens had the chance to cast their ballots in the presidential election. But for Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents, the election was only local because the island territory is not a state, and therefore has no electoral votes. That could change, though. A non-binding referendum included on the Puerto Rican ballot asked whether the voter was satisfied with the current status of Puerto Rico within the United States. A second question  listed three possible changes to Puerto Rico’s status, and asked them to choose one: statehood, sovereign free-associated state (more independent, but still tied to the United States), or independence.

54% of voters wanted to change Puerto Rico’s status (the first question). Of those who went on to answer the second question, 61% chose statehood, 33% chose sovereign free-associated, and 6% chose independence. While pro-statehood advocates celebrated, debate raged over what the results actually meant, and whether they would really lead to statehood.

Many questioned the validity of the returns because half a million Puerto Ricans did not answer the second part of the referendum. Presumably, these voters did not support any of the option listed on the ballot. When these votes are factored in, the statehood option received only 45% of the vote.

Some critics pointed out that the pro-statehood party was voted out of power as evidence that the referendum did not provide a mandate for Puerto Rican statehood.

Others accepted with reservations the result of the vote, but expressed doubts about the likelihood of Puerto Rico actually achieving statehood. While both candidates in the United States presidential election said they would approve statehood for Puerto Rico if Puerto Ricans wanted it, Obama and political leaders have many other pressing issues to deal with that may take precedent over any Puerto Rican statehood legislation.

In addition, Republicans in the House of Representatives may oppose adding a state that some polls suggest may lean towards Democrats, even though the outgoing pro-statehood governor (and the leader of the pro-statehood campaign) was nominally Republican. Within Puerto Rico, the newly elected government opposes statehood, posing another obstacle to its admission into the Union as the 51st state.

Still, pro-statehood advocates were optimistic about their chances. They argued that Puerto Ricans have already voted with their feet: 58% of Puerto Ricans, some 4.6 million, now live in the continental United States.