In Sunday’s referendum, the citizens of Puerto Rico chose statehood by a landslide. However, it is still far from certain if the island is on track to become the 51st state of the union.
The plebiscite gave Puerto Ricans three options: become a U.S. state, remain a territory or become an independent nation.
Almost 7,800 people voted for independence and a little more than 6,800 voters chose to keep the current territorial status. On the other hand, nearly half a million voters chose a path to statehood – putting their margin of victory at a resounding 97 percent.
While the outcome was decisive, there are still arguments that the vote was not completely legitimate. Three of the island’s political parties – including former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla – told supporters to boycott the election. Rather than participating in the election, many opponents of statehood abstained from Sunday’s vote entirely. Of the 2.2 million eligible voters, only 23 percent actually took part in the referendum.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello campaigned heavily in favor of statehood. Rossello, a member of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (a pro-statehood party) believes the best path forward for the island is to join the United States. While proponents of independence waved the Puerto Rican flag on election night, Gov. Rossello spoke at an election rally riddled with American flags.
“The United States of America will have to obey the will of our people!” Rossello yelled to the crowd of statehood supporters. Now that the election is over, the governor has vowed to put pressure on Capitol Hill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
A major factor in this election is Puerto Rico’s financial standing. After decades of heavy borrowing, the island is now $70 billion in debt. The poverty rate stands at 45 percent while countless government programs go underfunded. Close to half a million Puerto Ricans have fled to the United States in search of better opportunities. Many believe becoming a U.S. state will open the door to economic growth. Residents also feel they are second-class citizens due to the fact that they cannot vote in presidential elections (except in primaries) and lack real representation in Congress.
The vote is over, but Congress actually reacting to the outcome is a whole other process entirely. There are several big issues to be considered. The island comes with a lot of baggage ($70 billion to be exact). If the statehood process were to be successful, Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the union. A Republican-controlled Congress should be hesitant to accept a new state that would undoubtedly favor the Democratic Party. Puerto Ricans, much like the overall Latino electorate, heavily favor liberal lawmakers. Accepting the island as a new state would certainly chip away at the GOP’s standing in the Senate and House.
These financial and political considerations will weigh heavy on Congress in deciding what to do next. The voters of Puerto Rico may have decided their fate, but Washington isn’t so sure yet.