Despite Ballot Obstacles, Puerto Ricans Still Support Commonwealth Status

January 15, 2013

Recent calls to press ahead with efforts to make Puerto Rico the newest U.S. state defy the results of the plebiscite on Nov. 6, when Puerto Rican voters rejected statehood and elected pro-commonwealth candidate Alejandro García Padilla as their new governor.

In a democracy, wishful thinking does not substitute for support.  Even the most fervent statehood advocates must realize that the election results amount to far less than the clear consensus necessary to move the statehood issue forward. 

It is important to note the bias in the complex two-vote process as orchestrated by the pro-statehood party in their waning days in power leading up to the referendum on Election Day.  Puerto Rican voters were asked first whether they would rather keep the commonwealth’s current political status or preferred an alternative.  They could answer either yes or no.  The next question then narrowed the field of alternatives to only three options:  statehood, independence, or sovereign commonwealth. 

Without an option representing their political status of choice, many statehood opponents advocated leaving the second question blank.  Indeed, some 498,604 Puerto Rican voters refused to answer.

If the tortured ballot design was an attempt to make statehood appear more popular, the actual election results demonstrated just the opposite.  Of the 1,878,969 Puerto Ricans who made it to the polls, only 834,191 – or 44 percent – showed an interest in becoming America’s 51st state.  Twenty-four percent marked their ballots for sovereign commonwealth, 4 percent for independence, and 27 percent left that part of the ballot blank in protest. 

Any way you slice it, roughly 800,000 votes out of 1.9 million does not a consensus make.  Historically, a 44 percent vote for statehood is similar to the 1993 and 1998 referendums, where statehood earned 46 percent and 47 percent of the vote, respectively.

Other outcomes on Election Day show public support for political leaders who want Puerto Rico to remain a commonwealth.  Governor García Padilla belongs to the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, which was a big winner overall, taking back control of both houses in the legislature and the mayor’s office in San Juan.

Unfazed by their dismal Election Day performance, statehood supporters are laboring vigorously to turn a sow’s ear into synthetic silk.  Their argument rests on the assertion that 61 percent of participants in Question No. 2 chose statehood as their preferred political status.

Objective observers, however, have realized that the votes do not measure up quite as neatly as statehood advocates claim.  Sixty-one percent may appear impressive at first blush, but the number was achieved artificially only by disregarding the ballots from voters who cast blank ballots in protest.

With nearly half a million votes set aside by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission, statehood advocates may look good on paper, but the contrived result fails to reflect actual public opinion.  Puerto Ricans are right to demand better.   

Puerto Rico’s referendum is non-binding, and any action toward official statehood must go through Congress. 

Of course, the election results should not deter Congress from continuing to pursue ways to improve Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.  As commonwealth residents, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and serve in the U.S. military.  They have a non-voting delegate in Congress, pay only limited federal taxes, and cannot vote in presidential elections.  For commonwealth supporters, the current political status is important to preserving Puerto Rico’s rich heritage and having greater authority over the island’s unique needs. 

Until an overwhelming consensus for statehood develops, Puerto Ricans’ satisfaction with being a commonwealth should be respected.