Nowhere to Hide

11/05/2012 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Whether one is looking forward to the showdown tomorrow or, as little Abigael Evans, is sick of "Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney," most Americans are focused on what might happen in the down-to-the-wire presidential race. But on Tuesday, the people of Puerto Rico will face a different if equally contested battle over its political future when they vote in a plebiscite about territorial status. And this one may be different, with results that the next U.S. Congress -- whatever its political composition -- may be forced to address.

In the intimacy of the voting booth, Puerto Ricans will encounter two separate ballots. In the first one, voters will be asked outright if they reject unincorporated territorial status, which in practice means that U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, do not have a voting Congressional delegation, and are not fully protected by the constitution. In a second ballot, electors will be able to choose what status they prefer, but only from a menu of non-territorial possibilities that Congress has already deemed to be acceptable: statehood, independence in free association with the United States, and outright independence.

Even at this late date, it is impossible to tell whether statehood has the votes to claim a historic victory. Yet one thing is sure: even if statehooders do not carry the day this time, the rejection of the status quo is increasing among Puerto Ricans on the island. This is evident in at least two very different ways, both pointing north.

First is that regardless of the popularity of specific leaders or administrations, statehood is the only mainstream option that has grown since the island began having referenda in the late 1960s. Over this period, support for statehood has increased from 39 percent in 1967 to 46.7 percent in 1998. Backing for the status quo, however, has noticeably dropped, from 60 percent to less than 50 percent. Equally significant, although for the vast majority of voters independence appears to be out of the question, advocates for this alternative actually more than doubled as well: from less than 1 percent to 2.5 percent.

Second is that in the last ten years alone, a whopping 500,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for the United States. It is, of course, unlikely that all of these migrants would vote for statehood or independence in a status consultation. But they are voting with their feet to live in a state of the union over a territory. And the sheer number of people is not the only major issue here. Unlike all prior Puerto Rican migrations to the U.S., everyone is packing their bags: the poor, the middle class and the rich-in fairly proportional numbers.

The reasons why the Puerto Rican diaspora is becoming an exodus are not hard to come by: After the economic expansion of World War II, most islanders were willing to go along with the "the status is not at issue" championed by the Popular Democratic Party, and not think too much about the island's political subordination to the U.S. But as the economic model went bust in the 1970s, Puerto Rico has been unable to reinvent itself to address intensifying levels of corruption, violence, and poverty. And just to put this state of affairs in perspective, consider that Puerto Rico has less than half the per capita of the nation's poorest state, Mississippi; a murder rate nearly twice as high as Mexico's; and not a single major institution free of corruption and scandal.

If current trends hold this means that, after this or that plebiscite and perhaps sooner than expected, Puerto Rico's non-voting delegate will introduce legislation to make the island a state. At that point, there will be no territorial rock under which to hide. Although the U.S. has done its very best to avoid the territorial question for decades out of fear that it will lead to statehood, once Puerto Ricans finally come around, Congress will have no other dignified choice but to say to decolonization -- of Puerto Rico and itself.

Crying will probably not be an option.