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The Vote in Puerto Rico’s June 11 Political Status Plebiscite: Analysis

Puerto Rico’s most recent plebiscite, held June 11, 2017, had a very clear outcome: 97% of voters chose statehood from the territory’s three status options (nationhood in addition to territory status and statehood).

The islands’ political factions supporting nationhood and an unprecedented “Commonwealth status” that Federal officials have said is impossible for constitutional reasons  had campaigned for a boycott of the plebiscite and are now trying to discredit the vote, in part claiming  a low turnout of voters.

The Puerto Rico State Commission on Elections reported that 518,199 voters came to the polls out of a 2,260,804 names on  voter lists but also said that the number of “active voters “ in the territory is 1,622,237. The turnout was 32% of active voters but 23% of all names on voter lists.

The intention of the boycotts was simply to discredit the plebiscite. The groups that urged people not to vote knew that their status proposals would lose even if all voters who might cast ballots for their proposals voted. Nationalists also objected to the current status, territory, being an option because it is an undemocratic “colonial” status. Pro-statehood government officials objected to that, too, but added the “Current Territorial Status” at the insistence of the U.S. Department of Justice which argued that it is, obviously, a possible future status.

Responding to criticism about the turnout, election observer and former U.S. Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) explained: “The so-called boycott is a political posture whereby you can claim that the absence of votes is supporting you. This is dubious logic at best. If you want to oppose a position then you need to vote against it, otherwise you are consenting to having the other voters who do participate make that choice on your behalf. A boycott is essentially an admission to defeat as no one boycotts an election they could win.”

Yet some observers, including some members of Congress, are going along with the idea. For example, Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) is said to have called the plebiscite a “dog and pony show.” Puerto Rico Governor Rossello pointed out that Velazquez won her seat with just 4% of the vote.

Other Members of Congress, however, have been supportive of the results. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fl) tweeted that the results were “compelling.”

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) similarly stated, “The ballot was fair and those who voted overwhelmingly chose statehood. In our democracy, only those who show up to vote get counted.” She added that she “will always support equality through statehood for the 3.4 million American citizens that reside in Puerto Rico.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, (D-MD) issued a statement saying that “The voters who participated in Puerto Rico’s status referendum expressed an unambiguous desire to continue seeking a future in common with the United States as an equal member of our union. I hope Congress and the administration will listen to those voices and enable Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. Its people — already American citizens — deserve full and equal representation in the Congress and equal treatment by federal agencies.”

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) emphasized that “[t]hose who stand to gain financially from a continuation of the status quo will seek to delegitimize the results of this federally authorized plebiscite. I wrote the law making this plebiscite possible so Congress could get a clear understanding of the wishes of the American citizens of Puerto Rico. They have now sent a clear and unambiguous message that they want to transition from a territory to a state. Congress needs to begin looking at ways to fulfill the wishes of these fellow Americans, as it has for all previous territories that voted for statehood.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) said simply, “Puerto Rico should be admitted as a state to the United States.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R) introduced a bill that would make Puerto Rico a State in 2018.

Reps. Darren Soto (D-FL) and Don Young (R-AK) both co-sponsored Gonzalez’s bill. Soto has since introduced a statehood bill of his own.

Democratic National Committee Vice-Chair and New York State Assembly Member Michael A. Blake released a statement confirming the overwhelming win for statehood and saying, ”I commend all of the Puerto Rican men and women who participated in the democratic process and applaud them for standing up and voting for their beliefs. Now, it is Congress’ turn to listen to the Puerto Rican people. I urge the Republican Congress to respect the wishes of the Puerto Rican people and bring the issue of statehood up for a vote.”

González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and Chair of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, released a statement saying, “Now is the time to transition the territory to equality from an undemocratic status that has dramatically limited the growth of the economy, helped cause a decade-long depression, and has forced millions Puerto Ricans to the mainland.”

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