Puerto Rico's governor announced that the U.S. territory overwhelmingly chose statehood on Sunday in a nonbinding referendum held amid a deep economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of islanders to the U.S. mainland.
Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, about 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for the current territorial status, according to preliminary results. Voter turnout was just 23 percent, leading opponents to question the validity of a vote that several political parties had urged their supporters to boycott.
And the U.S. Congress has final say in any changes to Puerto Rico's political status.
But that didn't stop Gov. Ricardo Rossello from vowing to push ahead with his administration's quest to make the island the 51st U.S. state and declaring that "Puerto Rico voted for statehood." He said he would create a commission to ensure that Congress validate the referendum's results.
"In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral processes always prevails," Rossello said. "It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico."
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, according to Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum in 2012.
"Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic about this plebiscite as they were five years ago," he said.
"The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating," Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told The Associated Press. "Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be cancelled by the amount of taxes the island will have to pay."
His party also has noted that the U.S. Justice Department has not backed the referendum.
A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory's current status as an option. The Rossello administration added it and sent the ballot back for review, but the department said it needed more time and asked that the vote be postponed, which it wasn't.
No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums on status, with voters almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change. Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but nearly half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the results weren't legitimate.
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