I clearly didn’t anticipate just how lopsided the vote in Puerto Rico’s referendum was going to wind up being yesterday. When the polls closed, headlines began showing up in social media calling it a “landslide” in favor of abandoning the island’s territorial status and taking their place as the USA’s 51st state. And at least in terms of the percentages involved it wasn’t even close. (Associated Press)
Puerto Rico’s governor is vowing to turn the U.S. territory into the 51st state after statehood won in a non-binding referendum hit by a boycott and low turnout that raised questions about the vote’s legitimacy…
More than half a million people voted for statehood during Sunday’s referendum, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status. Voter turnout was just 23 percent.
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, noted Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He told The Associated Press that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the previous referendum in 2012.
So… 97%. Yes, that’s a landslide no matter what definition you choose to employ. When I wrote about this referendum yesterday morning I was foolish enough to think that the most recent polls might be predictive of the result. A majority favored statehood, but as usual it was a relatively slender majority. And among those who favored statehood it wasn’t a terribly enthusiastic endorsement. There was also talk of a boycott of the election among those who favored either keeping things the way they are now or going for full independence. But there’s always talk of a boycott, right? Nobody ever takes it seriously.
So much for that idea. Less than a quarter of the registered voters showed up and they were almost entirely those pushing for statehood. So what happens now? The island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, thinks he knows.
“The United States of America will have to obey the will of our people!” Rossello yelled to a crowd clutching U.S. flags and dancing to a tropical jingle that promoted statehood.
Sorry to disappoint you, Governor, but that’s not actually the case. The decision is up to Washington and things don’t look good for statehood any time soon. There are two elements to the hurdle Puerto Rico is facing and it comes down to practicalities and politics. On the practicality side, as we discussed yesterday, taking on Puerto Rico as a state right now won’t be popular because they’re on the verge of bankruptcy. The move would saddle the rest of the country with yet another huge debt we don’t need at the moment.
And then there’s the politics. Even if the territory was flush with cash and ready to further bolster the economy, the GOP is in charge of both chambers of Congress and the Oval Office. Puerto Rico runs heavily Democratic in terms of political preferences and bringing them in as a full state would pretty much automatically mean two more Democratic senators and another slug of five seats in the house. And, of course, that would give them seven electoral votes in the next presidential election, almost certainly going to the Democratic candidate. Do you really think that the GOP is going to give a hearty thumbs up to that plan?
Let’s just say I wouldn’t hold my breath. Statehood may be coming for Puerto Rico, but I’d wager that they’re going to need to straighten out their financial mess first and then make a new push if and when the Democrats are next in control of Washington. Until then the non-binding referendum will probably remain very heavy on the “non-binding” part.