Puerto Ricans Vote for Statehood amid Questionable Turnout

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June 11, 2017

For the second time, a majority in Puerto Rico have voted for American statehood. What happens next isn't up to them. The U.S. Congress has the final approval on whether Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state.

Reports were that 97 percent of votes cast were for statehood. However, turnout was relatively light, reported at just 23 percent. Three political parties urged their members to boycott the vote. The three choices on the ballot were these:

  • American statehood
  • independence/free association
  • status quo.

This is the fifth time that Puerto Rico residents have voted on changing the island's territorial status. In 1967, 1993, and 1998, a majority voted no (although in 1998, the majority was just 50.5 percent). In 2012, a majority, 54 percent, voted yes and then 61 percent of those who voted for change preferred statehood.

The United States gained control of Puerto Rico after winning the Spanish-American War, in 1898. Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship in 1917, and the island became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952. Then-President Harry S. Truman signed Puerto Rico's constitution and bill of rights, written by Puerto Ricans.

People who live in Puerto Rico are already U.S. citizens, and they have certain other rights and responsibilities as a result of the island's commonwealth status. Among those are these:

  • They have their own equivalent of a state government, with a two-house legislature and a governor
  • They can vote for presidential candidates but only in party primaries. 
  • They have a nonvoting delegate, the resident commissioner, attached to the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • They pay federal tax but only on work that they have done within the U.S.
  • They receive benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The Territories Clause of the U.S. Constitution, found in Article IV, Section 3, gives Congress the power to declare Puerto Rico independent; Congress did this with the Philippines in 1945. The Admissions Clause, also found in Article IV, Section 3 (just before the Territories Clause), gives Congress to the power to admit entities as U.S. states; Congress did this in 1958 and 1959, with Alaska and Hawaii.

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