61 per­cent said they would pick U.S. state­hood if con­tin­u­ing as a self-gov­ern­ing com­mon­wealth were off the table, even as they oust­ed pro-state­hood Gov­er­nor Luis Fortuno.
By Reuters | Pub­lished: Wednes­day, Novem­ber 7, 2012, 5:45 PM | Updat­ed: Wednes­day, Novem­ber 7, 2012, 7:19 PM

Ana Martinez/Reuters
A sup­port­er of the pro-state­hood New Pro­gres­sive Par­ty holds the Amer­i­can flag after cast­ing her vote to elect the local gov­ern­ment and par­tic­i­pate in the fourth polit­i­cal sta­tus plebiscite to decide among state­hood, inde­pen­dence or sov­er­eign state with asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. in San Juan, Tuesday.

SAN JUAN, Puer­to Rico — Puer­to Ricans showed sup­port in a non-bind­ing ref­er­en­dum to change the island’s sta­tus as a U.S. ter­ri­to­ry, pre­fer­ring to become the 51st U.S. state even as they oust­ed their pro-state­hood gov­er­nor from office, accord­ing to offi­cial results on Wednes­day.  Puer­to Ricans faced two ques­tions in a sta­tus vote on Tues­day, with the first ask­ing if Puer­to Rico should keep its cur­rent sta­tus as a self-gov­ern­ing com­mon­wealth.  Near­ly 54 per­cent of vot­ers said no, while 46 per­cent chose to remain a com­mon­wealth under which Puer­to Ricans liv­ing on the island are U.S. cit­i­zens. They can­not vote for pres­i­dent, how­ev­er, and are rep­re­sent­ed by a non-vot­ing del­e­gate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The sec­ond ques­tion asked vot­ers, regard­less of their answer to the first ques­tion, to choose their pref­er­ence among three non-ter­ri­to­r­i­al options — U.S. state­hood, inde­pen­dence, or a sov­er­eign free asso­ci­a­tion with ties to the Unit­ed States. State­hood gained 61 per­cent of the vote ver­sus 33 per­cent for sov­er­eign free asso­ci­a­tion, under which terms of the rela­tion­ship between a sov­er­eign Puer­to Rico and the Unit­ed States would be detailed in a new pact. Inde­pen­dence received more than 5 per­cent sup­port.  But near­ly one-third of the total votes cast left the answer to the sec­ond ques­tion blank and were not includ­ed in the vote tal­ly. With those bal­lots count­ed, sup­port for state­hood was cal­cu­lat­ed to be clos­er to 45 per­cent, ana­lysts said. The ref­er­en­dum was backed by Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Luis For­tuno of the New Pro­gres­sive Par­ty which sup­ports statehood.

On Wednes­day, he con­ced­ed defeat in Puer­to Rico’s guber­na­to­r­i­al race after nar­row­ly los­ing his re-elec­tion bid.  For­tuno’s main rival was Sen­a­tor Ale­jan­dro Gar­cia Padil­la of the pro-com­mon­wealth Pop­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, or PDP.  “I accept the will of the peo­ple and con­grat­u­late Gov­er­nor-elect Ale­jan­dro Gar­cia Padil­la,” For­tuno said.  With 96 per­cent of the vot­ing sta­tions report­ing, Gar­cia Padil­la had 47.85 per­cent and For­tuno had 47.04 per­cent, accord­ing to Puer­to Rico’s State Elec­tions Commission.

The gov­er­nor’s race played out against press­ing issues like a stag­nant econ­o­my, stub­born unem­ploy­ment of 13.6 per­cent and a high lev­el of vio­lent crime fueled by drug traf­fick­ing, with a record-break­ing 1,117 mur­ders being reg­is­tered on the island last year. Ahead of the vote, Wall Street expressed con­cern a loss by For­tuno could upset a fis­cal restora­tion plan he imple­ment­ed that includ­ed gov­ern­ment lay­offs and oth­er belt-tight­en­ing mea­sures.  Puer­to Rico debt is wide­ly held by U.S. investors because of its unusu­al full exemp­tion from fed­er­al, state and local income tax­es, and investors have cred­it­ed the For­tuno admin­is­tra­tion with bring­ing gov­ern­ment finances under con­trol and imple­ment­ing tax and ener­gy reform.

Ana Martinez/Reuters
Fol­low­ers of the Pop­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, who favor the island’s cur­rent polit­i­cal sta­tus, play ‘pan­deros’ in front of their par­ty after cast­ing their vote in San Juan, Tuesday.

How­ev­er, Puer­to Rico’s debt has bal­looned to $67 bil­lion, mak­ing it among the most indebt­ed juris­dic­tions in the Unit­ed States, and eco­nom­ic growth remains tepid, grow­ing by 1.1 per­cent last year after six years of decline.  Debate over the island’s sta­tus has long dom­i­nat­ed pol­i­tics in Puer­to Rico where vot­ers have opt­ed to remain a U.S. com­mon­wealth in four votes held since 1967, but the mar­gin of vic­to­ry has decreased over the years.  Most Puer­to Ricans pay no fed­er­al income tax, but con­tribute to Social Secu­ri­ty and are eli­gi­ble to receive fed­er­al wel­fare ben­e­fits, and many have served in the armed forces.

Com­mon­wealth sup­port­ers describe Puer­to Rico’s rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States as a bilat­er­al pact that allows the island some auton­o­my, but crit­ics say it is a colony under the com­plete author­i­ty of the U.S. Con­gress.  Any change in Puer­to Rico’s sta­tus would have to be approved by the Congress.

In 1998, the last time vot­ers were asked to choose their sta­tus pref­er­ence, just over 50 per­cent chose a “none of the above” option that was backed by the PDP. The par­ty chose not to sup­port a “com­mon­wealth option” on the bal­lot because it was defined as a ter­ri­to­r­i­al sta­tus sub­ject to con­gres­sion­al author­i­ty.  The Unit­ed States seized Puer­to Rico as war booty from Spain fol­low­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can war in 1898. The island was grant­ed a larg­er degree of autonomous rule under com­mon­wealth sta­tus in 1952.