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Statehood Wins: The Culmination of a Trend

Updated with annotation below on November 9, 2020 to reflect plebiscite votes in favor of statehood held in 2017 and 2020.

Some analyses of the recent status vote in Puerto Rico imply that voters were confused and did not actually intend to vote for statehood. In light of the history of Puerto Rico’s plebiscite votes, this is at best an unrealistic idea, and at worst an offensive one.

The ballot for the most recent vote on Puerto Rican status:

This is visually very clear, and the results show an unambiguous preference for statehood:

  • Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?  Yes: 46%  No: 54%.
  • Irrespective of your answer to the first question, indicate which of the following non-territorial options you prefer.

The 1998 ballot was more cramped and less clear.  Election officials refused to include an “Enhanced Commonwealth” option due to constitutional and practical problems with its definition as identified by Congress after the 1993 and 1967 votes (described below), but officials did offer a vague “none of the above” option that narrowly won:

The results of that ballot showed the statehood option trailing the “none of the above” category:

December 13, 1998

  • .06%              Current territory status
  • .1%                  Free association
  • 2.5%               Independence
  • 46.5%            Statehood
  • 50.3%            None of the Above [supported by voters who supported Enhanced Commonwealth, free association, and independence]

The results in 1993 showed a similar degree of support for statehood, which came in second to a “Commonwealth” definition that was later deemed by Congress and successive presidential administrations to be unconstitutional and unworkable as a practical matter:

November 14, 1993

  • 48.6%              Commonwealth with autonomy from federal tax laws, and greater tax, trade, and social programs benefits
  • 46.3%              Statehood
  • 4.4%                Independence

The first plebiscite vote, in 1967, represented the introduction of an expansive “Commonwealth” definition on the ballot.  Although Congress and high level officials from the Obama, Clinton and both Bush administrations have since rejected this status option, its appeal and obvious popularity were on full display in1967:

July 23, 1967

  • 60%                 Commonwealth with some national government powers
  • 38.9%              Statehood
  • 0.6%                Independence

One final but important point:  critics claim that in calculating plebiscite results, we must include the 421,982 people who voted “yes” on the first question – to continue Puerto Rico’s territorial status – as a vote for a “territory” option to be unofficially added to the second ballot question.  As we explained in a previous post, this would make the final tally: (1) statehood (46%), (2) sovereign free associated state (25%), (3) territory (24%), and (4) independence (4%).

The problem with this interpretation is that it is simply not credible.  It is too much of a leap to conclude that silence in the second question on the 2012 plebiscite ballot implies that 24% of Puerto Ricans secretly wish to remain a territory.  After all, the territory option received only .06% of the vote in 1998, the only time it was even included on a ballot.

We can see in each of the three previous plebiscites that very few people in Puerto Rico are passionate about remaining a territory.  They may seek instead to be a “Commonwealth,” otherwise known as an “Enhanced Commonwealth,” or, in the words of Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the most senior Member of Congress born in Puerto Rico, “a letter to Santa Claus,” but as Serrano explains with greater seriousness, this option is simply not realistic.

If we look at all the votes, we see a clear trend. Independence never manages to get even 5% of the vote. The Commonwealth option, even if we charitably count “none of the above” as a vote for the Commonwealth, slips over the years as Puerto Ricans gain a firmer understanding of its limitations, while statehood increases to its 2012 victory. This year’s vote, far from being an anomaly or the result of confusion, is the culmination of a trend.

Update:  In 2017, Puerto Rico had another plebiscite with the following result:

  • Statehood received 97.13% of the votes cast.
  • Free Association/ Independence received 1.52% of the vote.
  • The current territorial status received 1.35% of the votes.

On November 3, 2020, Puerto Rican voters went to the polls once again and cast their votes for statehood.  In a straightforward yes-or-no vote, 52% of voters chose “yes” for statehood.  Although the percentage for statehood had decreased since 2017, the number of people voting for statehood increased by more than 100,000.


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