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Did Puerto Rico Really Vote for Statehood?

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Headlines last week reported that a majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood for the first time in the country's history. The referendum had two parts. The first part asked whether the voter agreed with Puerto Rico's current status as a U.S. commonwealth, which was described on the ballot as Puerto Rico's "current territorial condition." By a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, the voters rejected Puerto Rico's current territorial condition, stating in effect that they would like to change their current status. The second part was entitled "Non-Territorial Options," and listed three options: (1) Statehood, (2) Sovereign Free Associated State, and (3) Independence. According to news reports, 61 percent of voters supported statehood, 33 percent supported the sovereign commonwealth arrangement, and 6 percent voted for independence.

However, a fair reading of the referendum results shows clearly that the headlines proclaiming that a majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood are misleading and erroneous, and certainly promote considerable cynicism regarding Puerto Rico's political process. Indeed, the votes of nearly half a million voters who did not support statehood were not counted. These voters deliberately left blank the second part of the ballot, in effect stating that they preferred a fourth option to the three options listed on the ballot. These voters likely would have supported a fourth option, choosing some form of commonwealth status similar to the current arrangement, but since this option did not appear on the ballot, would have checked a box marked "other" if such a ballot option was available, which it was not. The absence of this fourth option, and the reason for its omission, explain why the official results of this referendum are spurious, and certainly do not support the dramatic headlines proclaiming Puerto Rico's approval of statehood.

As background, several points need to be emphasized. The ballot was prepared and counted by an election board appointed by the pro-statehood governing party (New Progressive Party). In calculating the results, the election board chose to exclude the blank ballots. Had the voters who cast blank ballots been counted in the total number of actual voters, then the total number of voters who supported options other than statehood -- i.e., sovereign free associated state, independence, and the "other" option of a commonwealth arrangement supported by voters who left this part blank -- would have been 55 percent, and the number of voters supporting statehood 45 percent.

Moreover, the way the first question was presented -- "Do you agree with Puerto Rico's current territorial condition?" -- appears to have been deliberately framed by the pro-statehood party to make a "Yes" vote less likely, and to pave the way for a vote for statehood. Indeed, the term "territorial" in Puerto Rican discourse for most citizens is an incendiary word that is an affront to their national identity. Describing Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States is tantamount to insinuating that Puerto Rico is the functional equivalent of a U.S. colony. By the same token, a vote of "No" also presents problems for those voters who do not agree that Puerto Rico is a mere territory. These voters likely would support some other type of commonwealth arrangement, but do not support statehood or independence.

It is not difficult to speculate why the pro-statehood election board did not provide a fourth option for those voters who rejected the three listed options -- statehood, independence, and the new and highly confusing option entitled "sovereign free associated state." Clearly, these voters would have supported some version of the existing commonwealth arrangement, but this was not an option. Excluding from the ballot a fourth option entitled "other" has been controversial, and has been litigated in the Puerto Rican courts. In a previous statehood referendum in 1993, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled that referendums must give voters the option to cast a vote for "other," or "none of the previous options" if the voter is not satisfied with the way the options on the ballot are listed or defined. When the 2012 ballot options were announced by the pro-statehood government, the "other" option was deliberately omitted from the ballot. This omission was the result of a lawsuit which had been brought by the pro-commonwealth party, but now, the Supreme Court was comprised for the first time of a majority of pro-statehood judges, and the court overruled the 1993 decision and held that an option listing "other" is not required. It is ironic that the 1993 referendum was actually won by those who voted "other" who were dissatisfied with the way the ballot described the new commonwealth arrangement, the same reason that motivated those voters in 2012 to leave the ballot blank, since there was no place to vote "other."

There is further evidence that pro-statehood supporters lacked a mandate from the voters. The pro-statehood governing party which proposed the referendum was voted out of office, the pro-statehood governor was defeated, the pro-statehood majority in the Senate was voted out of office, and the pro-statehood mayoralties in the cities also lost.

Regardless of the ambiguous vote for statehood, there is little chance that Puerto Rico will become the 51st state, at least in the near future. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution authorizes both houses of Congress to admit new states by a simple majority vote, and the president's signature. But Puerto Ricans in the U.S. historically have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, so it is unlikely that the Republican-controlled House would support Puerto Rican statehood, which would mean at least one new voting member in the House, and two U.S. senators.

The only clear message from last week's referendum, if there is one, is that Puerto Ricans want to change their current status. The Puerto Rican economy is very weak, and the population is shrinking. A new political status is seen as imperative. Puerto Rico is a valuable asset to the U.S. Although Puerto Ricans pay no federal income taxes, they do pay at least billions of dollars in import and export taxes. A new status for Puerto Rico, even statehood, may be inevitable. However, it does not appear as yet that statehood commands a majority of voters, despite the big headlines.