On Election Day, Puerto Ricans voted to become the 51st state. While the question has been on the ballot before, this is the first time it received majority support.
ABC News reported that a majority of voters, 54 percent, said that they wanted to change the island’s status, while 46 percent wanted it to stay the same. More than 61 percent voted for statehood, and 33 percent voted for sovereign free association, which would have given the island more ability to govern itself. A tiny minority of 5 percent supported independence.
The ballot issue was a nonbinding resolution. Congress and President Barack Obama would have to act to make statehood a reality.
While Obama has said he will follow the wishes of the Puerto Rican people, their wishes are not entirely clear. No immediate action is expected.
The San Francisco Chronicle called it “statehood with an asterisk,” because voters rejected their pro-statehood governor and because many left part of the ballot blank.
Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuño, a member of both the Republican Party and Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (PNP), was a strong advocate for statehood, and he ironically lost his office to Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, which does not want statehood.
García’s party prefers that Puerto Rico remain a partly autonomous U.S. commonwealth. The governor-elect has said that he will hold a constitutional assembly in 2014 to discuss the island’s political status, and then hold another referendum with support from Congress, according the San Francisco Chronicle.
Arguments for statehood include having a voting representative in Congress, voting for president, and fully participating in federal programs. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi is the island’s nonvoting representative in Congress. He belongs to both the pro-statehood PNP and the Democratic Party.
“After a century of battles and electoral defeats, statehood just became the political force of majority that Puerto Ricans prefer.”
– Margarita Nolasco, vice president, Puerto Rican Senate
Although Puerto Ricans have been United States citizens since 1917, there are some limitations to their involvement, which statehood would remove. While living on the island, they cannot vote for president, though they can if they live in a state.
This most recent recession hit the Caribbean island of 4 million hard. One of the reasons many support statehood is that as a state, Puerto Rico would get more economic support through programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and food stamps.
While Puerto Rico does get federal dollars through these programs, it is not as much as states get.
Many federal benefits do not flow to Puerto Ricans as freely as they do to citizens who live in states. Puerto Rican military veterans do not get TRICARE, a valuable health care benefit, for example.
“Despite Puerto Rico’s disproportionate contribution to our nation’s defense, the island’s military men and women face certain disparities, particularly in that they do not qualify for TRICARE Prime health benefits—the gold standard of care for our military around the country,” according to a statement from the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).
According the PRFAA, the Affordable Care Act helped Puerto Rico but did not bring it to full parity with states.
“Though still below state-level treatment, Puerto Rico’s advancement and increased flexibility in the new health care law allowed for the establishment of the island’s new integrated health care program, ‘Mi Salud,’” according to a PRFAA statement.
The island’s government also wants more border security and legislation supporting a free-enterprise zone to boost trade.
Margarita Nolasco is vice president of the Puerto Rican Senate and a member of the pro-statehood PNP. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that she hailed the vote for statehood.
“At the beginning of the last century, statehood appeared to be an impossible dream,” Nolasco said, according to the Chronicle. “After a century of battles and electoral defeats, statehood just became the political force of majority that Puerto Ricans prefer.”
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