Puerto Rican voters had a chance to weigh in on the island’s relationship to the United States in this November’s election.
The results, however, are up for debate. Fifty-four percent of voters, or 900,000, said they were unhappy with Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth of the United States. But some Puerto Rican residents and politicians argue that voters were not as clear about whether they favor statehood or independence.
The ballot featured two questions about Puerto Rico’s status — one asking about the commonwealth status and another asking what status the voter wants. Sixty-one percent of voters, or almost 800,000, who answered the second question said they preferred statehood.
The controversy stems from 500,000 voters who didn’t answer the ballot questions about their preference. Critics of statehood proponents say the blank ballots make the sentiments of Puerto Ricans unclear.
Puerto Rican Student Association President Manuel Figueroa criticized the two-question structure of the referendum. He said it should have been straightforward.
“After an entire history of being a colony, basically, it’s a great opportunity for the people of Puerto Rico to at least express what they believe to be the best alternative,” Figueroa (junior-philosophy and political science) said. “The way it’s formatted, though, is designed not to be taken very seriously. It’s really just a first step toward showing that there’s a lot of support for statehood that people did not expect.”
About 437,000 voters supported sovereign free association, and about 72,500 cast their vote in favor of independence.
Both houses of Congress would have to pass a bill admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state, said Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. The bills would generally follow the regular law-making process, where there will be committee hearings before they make it to the floor, Speel said.
Though becoming a state would mean Puerto Ricans have to pay federal taxes, it would also mean a flood of federal money for the island’s struggling economy that a lot of people don’t consider, Figueroa said.
“Staying status quo is going to bring the same results its brought us for the past 30 years, which is a stagnant economy, lack of capital investment on the island and a vicious cycle, where you have a very small private sector and an inflated public sector,” he said.
Penn State-Hazleton student Jasmine Navarro (freshman-veterinary and biomedical sciences) said Puerto Rico should remain on its own. It has already become Americanized, and it would only get worse if it became a state, she said.
Figueroa said he disagrees. Puerto Ricans are very proud of their culture, and they have a great culture, he said. That culture isn’t just going to disappear, he said.
“It’s not like we’re going to build a bridge from Florida to Puerto Rico,” Figueroa said. “It’s a scare tactic. It’s demagoguery to even suggest that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.