Story highlights

  • 97% of voters in Puerto Rico’s referendum chose US statehood Sunday
  • But voter turnout was low after opposition parties called for a boycott

(CNN)Puerto Ricans who voted for US statehood in a non-binding referendum Sunday are “claiming our equal rights as American citizens,” Puerto Rico’s governor says.

Ninety-seven percent of the votes favored statehood but voter participation was just 23% after opposition parties called for a boycott of what they called a “rigged” process in part over the ballot language.
    Congress, the only body that can approve new states, will ultimately decide whether the status of the US commonwealth changes.
    “It will be up to this new generation of Puerto Ricans to demand and claim in Washington the end of the current improper colonial relationship, and begin a transition process to fully incorporate Puerto Rico as the next state of the Union,” Governor Ricardo Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party said in a statement Sunday.
    For Puerto Rico to become a US state, Congress would need to pass a statute laying out the transition process. If Congress does not pass a statute, Puerto Rico’s status will remain as it is.
    Puerto Rico's first governor, appointed in 1509, was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. He named a city on the island Puerto Rico, or "rich port," which later became the name by which the entire island was identified.

    Puerto Rico's first governor, appointed in 1509, was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. He named a city on the island Puerto Rico, or "rich port," which later became the name by which the entire island was identified.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rico’s first governor, appointed in 1509, was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. He named a city on the island Puerto Rico, or “rich port,” which later became the name by which the entire island was identified.
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    People fill pails with water at the Christopher Columbus Fountain in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1920. Here, Columbus is said to have stepped on the shore and taken his first American drink.

    People fill pails with water at the Christopher Columbus Fountain in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1920. Here, Columbus is said to have stepped on the shore and taken his first American drink.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    People fill pails with water at the Christopher Columbus Fountain in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1920. Here, Columbus is said to have stepped on the shore and taken his first American drink.
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    Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and the island has been a US commonwealth since 1952. Puerto Rico wrote its own constitution, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Harry S. Truman.

    Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and the island has been a US commonwealth since 1952. Puerto Rico wrote its own constitution, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Harry S. Truman.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and the island has been a US commonwealth since 1952. Puerto Rico wrote its own constitution, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Harry S. Truman.
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    Puerto Ricans last voted on the question of statehood in 2012. A referendum asked voters if they wanted to change the island's relationship with the United States: become the 51st state, gain independence or opt for sovereign "free association," a designation that would give more autonomy. Most chose statehood, but the vote didn't lead anywhere.

    Puerto Ricans last voted on the question of statehood in 2012. A referendum asked voters if they wanted to change the island's relationship with the United States: become the 51st state, gain independence or opt for sovereign "free association," a designation that would give more autonomy. Most chose statehood, but the vote didn't lead anywhere.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Puerto Ricans last voted on the question of statehood in 2012. A referendum asked voters if they wanted to change the island’s relationship with the United States: become the 51st state, gain independence or opt for sovereign “free association,” a designation that would give more autonomy. Most chose statehood, but the vote didn’t lead anywhere.
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    A woman leaves a voting station after casting her ballot in the June 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in San Juan. Puerto Ricans can vote in US primaries but not in presidential elections.

    A woman leaves a voting station after casting her ballot in the June 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in San Juan. Puerto Ricans can vote in US primaries but not in presidential elections.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    A woman leaves a voting station after casting her ballot in the June 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in San Juan. Puerto Ricans can vote in US primaries but not in presidential elections.
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    Tourism is big business throughout the island and pulls in about $4 billion annually. The <a href="https://www.nps.gov/saju/learn/historyculture/san-cristobal.htm" target="_blank">Castillo San Cristóbal </a>in San Juan is a top attraction. It's one of the largest fortresses built in the Americas, constructed to protect the island from military attack.

    Tourism is big business throughout the island and pulls in about $4 billion annually. The <a href="https://www.nps.gov/saju/learn/historyculture/san-cristobal.htm" target="_blank">Castillo San Cristóbal </a>in San Juan is a top attraction. It's one of the largest fortresses built in the Americas, constructed to protect the island from military attack.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Tourism is big business throughout the island and pulls in about $4 billion annually. The Castillo San Cristóbal in San Juan is a top attraction. It’s one of the largest fortresses built in the Americas, constructed to protect the island from military attack.
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    The Zika epidemic presented a threat to the health of Puerto Ricans as well as a blow to the island's tourism industry. While the <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/06/health/zika-puerto-rico-epidemic-over-bn/index.html">crisis was declared over</a> in June 2017, more than 35,000 cases were reported there in 2016, and a public health emergency was enacted. Here, Michelle Flandez holds her son Inti Perez, diagnosed with microcephaly linked to the mosquito-borne virus.

    The Zika epidemic presented a threat to the health of Puerto Ricans as well as a blow to the island's tourism industry. While the <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/06/health/zika-puerto-rico-epidemic-over-bn/index.html">crisis was declared over</a> in June 2017, more than 35,000 cases were reported there in 2016, and a public health emergency was enacted. Here, Michelle Flandez holds her son Inti Perez, diagnosed with microcephaly linked to the mosquito-borne virus.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    The Zika epidemic presented a threat to the health of Puerto Ricans as well as a blow to the island’s tourism industry. While the crisis was declared over in June 2017, more than 35,000 cases were reported there in 2016, and a public health emergency was enacted. Here, Michelle Flandez holds her son Inti Perez, diagnosed with microcephaly linked to the mosquito-borne virus.
    Hide Caption
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    Puerto Rican identity has played a prominent role in popular culture and entertainment. Hip-hop and breakdancing grew out of a multicultural New York landscape that included African-American and Puerto Rican youths. Here, a production of "West Side Story" features the fleet-footed Puerto Rican Sharks gang.

    Puerto Rican identity has played a prominent role in popular culture and entertainment. Hip-hop and breakdancing grew out of a multicultural New York landscape that included African-American and Puerto Rican youths. Here, a production of "West Side Story" features the fleet-footed Puerto Rican Sharks gang.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rican identity has played a prominent role in popular culture and entertainment. Hip-hop and breakdancing grew out of a multicultural New York landscape that included African-American and Puerto Rican youths. Here, a production of “West Side Story” features the fleet-footed Puerto Rican Sharks gang.
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    Prominent Puerto Rican Americans include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured, actor Benicio Del Toro and entertainer Jennifer Lopez.

    Prominent Puerto Rican Americans include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured, actor Benicio Del Toro and entertainer Jennifer Lopez.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    Prominent Puerto Rican Americans include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured, actor Benicio Del Toro and entertainer Jennifer Lopez.
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    A down economy and high migration away from the island to mainland America means lots of vacant buildings on the island. The governor announced Puerto Rico would seek a form of bankruptcy protection to restructure its $70 billion-plus debt in May 2017, the largest municipal restructuring in US history.

    A down economy and high migration away from the island to mainland America means lots of vacant buildings on the island. The governor announced Puerto Rico would seek a form of bankruptcy protection to restructure its $70 billion-plus debt in May 2017, the largest municipal restructuring in US history.
    Photos:What you should know about Puerto Rico
    A down economy and high migration away from the island to mainland America means lots of vacant buildings on the island. The governor announced Puerto Rico would seek a form of bankruptcy protection to restructure its $70 billion-plus debt in May 2017, the largest municipal restructuring in US history.
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    Ballot language

    Options on the weekend referendum included remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state, entering “free association” or becoming an independent nation. Free association is an official affiliation with the United States where Puerto Rico would still receive military assistance and funding.
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    But the ballot’s previous language prompted calls by opposition parties to boycott what they saw as a rigged vote.
    In April, the Department of Justice wrote to Roselló saying the referendum ballot at the time incorrectly omitted Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth status as a ballot option, offering only statehood or free association/independence. The letter was published in the local newspaper El Vocero.
    The ballot was later changed to include “current territorial status” as an option, but the call for a boycott remained.

    Previous votes

    Four previous plebiscites, or popular votes, have been held to decide the commonwealth’s status in relation to the United States, with a majority of voters for the first time choosing statehood in 2012.
    Fifty-four percent of voters in that referendum backed changing Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. In a separate question, 61% chose statehood as the alternative, compared with 33% for the semi-autonomous “sovereign free association” and 6% for outright independence.
    Some argued the results should have been considered a “no” since more than one-third of voters left the part about alternative status blank. Congress did not act on that referendum.

    Turnout

    In 2012, around 1.8 million people voted — a turnout of 77.5% — but State Electoral Commission figures show that just 518,000 people (or 23% of eligible voters) voted in Sunday’s referendum. According to the commission’s numbers, 300,000 fewer people voted for statehood on Sunday than in 2012.
    Hector Ferrer, leader of Popular Democratic Party, said eight out of 10 “stayed home” or “went to the beach” instead of voting.
    “The governor lost, statehood lost,” Ferrer said. “They lost 300,000 votes in four years.”
    Rosselló contested the commission’s figures, telling CNN the electorate was 1.6 million — meaning turnout was 33%.
    In a statement, the governor said that he would travel to the US capital to speak with Congress, the White House, and other agencies regarding the referendum results.
    “We will now take these results to Washington, D.C., with the strong support of not only a duly executed electoral exercise, but also of a contingency of national and international observers, who can attest to the fact that the process was fair, well organized and democratic,” Rosselló said.
    “From today going forward, the federal Government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico. 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,” he said.

    What’s Puerto Rico’s current status?

    Puerto Rico came under US control in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. It has its own governor and legislative body and it became a US commonwealth territory with its own constitution in 1952.
    Its commonwealth status means Puerto Rico is subject to US federal laws, though island residents are exempt from some federal taxes.
    Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, however, as residents of a commonwealth territory rather than a state they can’t vote for president in the US general election. The territory has a nonvoting delegate in Congress, called a resident commissioner.
    It also gets US military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as official states receive.

    What are the arguments for and against?

    Roselló has argued that statehood for Puerto Rico could help the island’s economy.
    Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy on May 3, owing its creditors $73 billion.
    Unemployment is high, holding steady about 11.5% since March, and about 46% of the population of 3.4 million people live below the poverty level.
    Popular Democratic Party Senator Jose Nadal Power wrote an op-ed in El Nuevo Dia last Monday arguing that statehood was not the answer.
    “This Sunday’s plebiscite wastes millions of dollars and is not a good use of the time and energy we must devote to solving the fiscal and economic crisis of Puerto Rico. It lacks the backing of the United States federal government and comes at the worst possible time to solicit political concessions from Congress,” he wrote.
    Meantime Senator Juan Dalmau of the Puerto Rican Independence Party said on Twitter that: “Including colony as an option in the plebiscite is a setback to the aspirations of decolonization and former governor Anibal Acevedo Vila of the Popular Democratic Party said on Facebook that he would not be voting “as an act of conscience.”
    “Tomorrow, not voting is a form of voting. [the New Progressive Party] has lied about the “bonanza” of statehood and the supposedly devastating consequences of not asking for it,” he said.

    CNN’s Amy Roberts, Jeffrey Acevedo, Rafael Romo and Melonyce McAfee contributed to this report.

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