A little over a month after the island effectively filed for bankruptcy protection, Puerto Ricans have voted overwhelmingly for statehood in a nonbinding referendum that was marred by low voter turnout.
Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, more than 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for independence, according to preliminary results. The participation rate was just 23 percent with roughly 2.26 million registered voters, prompting opponents to question the validity of a vote that several parties had boycotted, Fox News reported.
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, according to Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum in 2012.
"Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic about this plebiscite as they were five years ago," he said.
The vote is nonbinding: The US Congress has the final say on Puerto Rio’s status, and there’s little support for taking on the economically-troubled island as a full member of the union.
That reality was apparently lost on Gov. Ricardo Rossello, the island’s governor, who accused Washington DC of hypocrisy in not honoring the will of the Puerto Rican people as expressed through a democratic vote.
"From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico," Rossello said. "It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico," according to the Associated Press.
Some see statehood as the best way to pull Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis; others blame the U.S. for the malaise and would rather seek independence after five centuries of what they call colonial rule, according to CNBC.
Puerto Rico's main opposition party rejected the pro-statehood result.
"The scant participation ... sends a clear message," Anibal Jose Torres, a party member, told Fox. "The people rejected it by boycotting an inconsequential event."
Puerto Rico previously voted in favor of becoming a state in 2012 during a vote that was also distorted by low turnout, the Hill reported.
Puerto Rico's governor requested bankruptcy protection for a portion of the island's $73 billion in debt back in May, setting up a showdown with Wall Street firms owed billions of dollars, in what will be the largest-ever U.S. municipal debt restructuring.
The island’s finances are presently under the control of a federal oversight board.