Voters in Puerto Rico head to the polls Sunday to decide whether to back a bid to make the U.S. territory the 51st state, at a time when the island is gripped by an economic crisis that is creating stiff challenges for such a proposal.
The nonbinding plebiscite in the island of 3.4 million people presents three options: statehood, independence or a continuation of its current status as a territory. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has made the push for statehood a centerpiece of his administration since assuming office in January.
“The people of Puerto Rico cherish our relationship with the United States,” said Jenniffer González, the island’s nonvoting member of Congress and a member of the pro-statehood party. “We hope to strengthen that relationship” by becoming the 51st state.
But the opposition Popular Democratic Party—which supports keeping the island’s current status, though with more autonomy—has urged voters to boycott the vote. It calls the referendum rigged in support of statehood, in part because the governing party had initially sought to exclude the territorial option from the ballot. The smaller Puerto Rican Independence Party has also called for a boycott.
Sunday’s vote will be the fifth plebiscite since 1967 on the island’s status, an issue that has divided Puerto Ricans for decades. Under the current status, Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens, but those living on the island can’t vote for president and have only one representative in Congress, a resident commissioner who cannot vote.
Proponents say Puerto Rico’s current status is essentially that of a colony, marring the island’s dignity. Gaining full admission to the U.S., they argue, could help the island contend with a decadelong recession and a $73 billion mountain of debt. It would draw more investment, they say, and allow the island to tap federal funding that is more-restricted for territories.
Apart from the plebiscite, Mr. Rosselló signed into law this week a measure aimed at bolstering the campaign for statehood. It would create a commission comprised of two “senators” and five “representatives”—which Puerto Rico would be expected to receive if it were to become a state—to press U.S. lawmakers for admission.
Yet the island’s economic woes make that a hard sell. In May, Puerto Rico declared what amounts to the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy in the U.S. and was placed under court protection. It is currently engaged in an acrimonious battle with Wall Street creditors that invested in the island’s bonds.
Another obstacle: Puerto Ricans in the U.S. vote heavily Democratic, leading many analysts to predict that a new delegation from the island would skew toward that party. Though President Donald Trump and both U.S. national parties have said they support allowing Puerto Ricans to choose their status, a statehood bid could face strong opposition.
With Republicans in full control of Congress—the body that needs to authorize the admission of a new state—a statehood bid “is dead on arrival,” said Charles Venator-Santiago, a political-science professor at the University of Connecticut.
In the first three plebiscites—in 1967, 1993 and 1998—statehood never won an outright majority. In the most recent one—a two-part referendum in 2012—voters rejected continuing the status quo in the first question, and then a majority opted for statehood over two options akin to independence in the second question.
But the Popular Democratic Party had urged voters to leave the second question blank as a form of protest, and about 500,000 did. Had those been counted as votes for “none of the above,” statehood wouldn’t have won a majority, they argue.
Given the current dispute among the island’s parties over the legitimacy of Sunday’s plebiscite, analysts question whether the vote will provide a clear mandate. “For decades, [the New Progressive Party] has tried, time and again, to manipulate the results of the plebiscite process,” said Héctor Ferrer, president of the Popular Democratic Party.
But Ms. González said the referendum is valid and that if voters choose statehood, she would pursue it aggressively with members of Congress. “We are going to use every tool that we have,” she said.
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