Low turnout in Puerto Rico status referendum, 97% of votes for US statehood

Voter participation sinks to 23% · Opposition parties had called to boycott · Referendum likely to be inconclusive once again

Ricardo Rosselló and his pro-statehood campaign team, 11 June.
Ricardo Rosselló and his pro-statehood campaign team, 11 June. Author: Equipo de Ricardo Rosselló
Puerto Rico has held yet another referendum —the fifth one since 1963— on its political future, and yet again the vote is likely not to resolve the status of the Caribbean island. 97% of voters who went to the polls, Sunday 11, did so to support United States statehood for Puerto Rico. But low turnout will probably have Washington not taking any steps, resulting in the maintenance of status quo in the years to come.

 Participation was merely 23% of those allowed to vote. The share is very low if compared to that in the previous, 2012 referendum, when turnout was 78%, or to the 2016 Puerto Rican election, when it reached 55%.

The referendum had been promoted by Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló (New Progressive Party, PNP, conservative), whose government is facing a serious economic crisis in the island.

The PNP’s stated intention in calling the vote was to put an end to the island’s current political status, which the PNP regards to be colonial-kind. The PNP proposes to turn Puerto Rico into the US’s 51st state.

After the vote, Rosselló has said he plans to push the US Congress to admit Puerto Rico. The governor has repeatedly announced he will resort to the so-called Tennessee Plan —a strategy to put pressure on Washington to achieve statehood.

He is unlikely, however, to succeed. First, no one in Washington has committed to implement the referendum outcome. And second, the 2012 precedent does not seem to be very promising. At that time, after another status referendum with a far higher turnout that 2017’s, neither Democrats nor Republicans believed that Puerto Ricans had taken a clear decision on the issue of status, even if US statehood achieved 834,000 votes. Now, it has barely captured half a million ballots.

Puerto Rican opposition parties had called for a referendum boycott. After the vote, they are claiming the referendum was a Rosselló failure. Héctor Ferrer, leader of main opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD, social liberal), has said the governor had sought to “impose his ideal above the will of the people,” the reason why “he was defeated.” The PPD rejects US statehood, and proposes instead to amend of the current status to grant Puerto Rico further self-government while at the same time keeping US citizenship and federal aids for Puerto Ricans.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, centre-left) has argued Rosselló had been seeking to fool people with an “imaginary federal backing” to the referendum. The PIP has demanded that the US trigger a “true decolonization process” in which two alternatives are presented to voters: either full independence or “sovereign free association.”

No changes whatsoever without US Congress decision

The federal backing is, indeed, the crux of the matter. Puerto Rico is politically a de facto US Congress dependency, even if it has enjoyed a degree of autonomy (the Commonwealth) since 1952. Therefore, any change of status must go through the decision of the Congress, either to integrate Puerto Rico as the 51st state or to grant it independence.

For the time being, Washington does not want to implement either way. On the one side, reluctance exists in the US to integrate a mostly Spanish-speaking, heavily indebted new state. But at the same time, independence supporters are a clear minority in Puerto Rico. In the last decades, successive US governments have been unwilling to commit to a path —independence— that is broadly rejected in Puerto Rico itself.