On Sunday, almost 500,000 voters cast their ballots in Puerto Rico on their current status with the United States. Puerto Rico has held multiple referendums on their affiliation with the United States. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change. On a second question on the same ballot, 61 percent said they favored statehood. But then, like now, many, many registered voters did not participate in the vote leading to calls of illegitimacy of the vote.
But, let’s back up for a second. Puerto Rico has been mired in a 10 year economic recession with no end in sight. The cost of food and utilities is over 25 percent and 60 percent higher than the Continental US. While the government has made fighting drugs a cornerstone of its role the drugs keep on flowing. Most recently, in an unprecedented move last year Congress took the first-time step of restructuring a territory’s debt with its bondholders. It has not helped the country’s economy.
Due to its territorial status, residents do not pay federal income taxes. However, they are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes and pay many local income taxes. Many of the critics of the referendum have latched onto the idea that paying millions in income taxes will do nothing to improve the state’s unemployment rate of 12 percent.
The internal divide within the country over its current status and economic doldrums culminated in a measly turnout of less than of 25 percent. The current Governor, Ricardo Rossello, of the New Progressive Party, is staunchly pro-statehood and pushed for the most recent referendum. Against the wishes of the Justice Department, the Governor went ahead with the referendum.
The opposition party, the Popular Democratic Party, urged a boycott of the vote after their calls for a vote on Puerto Rico being an autonomous entity was ignored. The Working People’s Party also joined in the boycott which culminated in a pro-statehood vote of almost 98 percent.
Most likely, this vote will matter as much as prior votes. In other words, not much. As a result, thousands more Puerto Ricans are likely to migrate over to the “mainland” to find better economic opportunities and a lower cost of living.
In the near-term, the repercussions of the vote will be felt in the US mainly along partisan lines. Democrats will argue Congress should vote on Puerto Rico becoming a state to honor the will of the voters. The less than 25 percent of them who bothered to show up and vote.
Republicans, on the other hand, are likely to handle this vote as they have all other prior votes on statehood; ignore it! The low turnout hardly certifies this is the will of the people of Puerto Rico. Additionally, few, if any Republicans are eager to grant statehood to a territory likely to elect two new Democratic Senators and a majority Democratic Congressional delegation.
In the end, again, the vote will probably amount to nothing. The internal schism within the nation on its current status and the partisan bickering here is set to ensure Puerto Rico will maintain its current status in the near future.