Puerto Rico To Vote On Statehood For Fifth Time In Fifty Years

For the fifth time in fifty years, Puerto Ricans will vote tomorrow on a referendum on statehood, but it's not likely to have any impact on the island's current status.

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For the fifth time since 1967, Puerto Rico will vote in a non-binding referendum on the state’s future status:

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.

As noted, this will be the fifth time that Puerto Rican voters, who are American citizens but do not have voting representation in Congress and have no representation at all in the Senate, will have voted on the status issue in the past fifty years. In the first such referendum in 1967, the option to remain a Commonwealth won with more than 60% of the vote, while statehood received 39% and independence received less than 1%. The second referendum was held some twenty-six years later in 1993, in that vote Commonwealth status received 48.6% of the vote while support for statehood increased to 46.3% of the vote and independence received 4.4% of the vote. The third referendum, held just four years later in 1997, offered voters more choices, including statehood, independence, remaining a Territorial  Commonwealth, something called “free association,” which from its definition seems like some kind of merger of maintaining current status and independence, and a “None of the Above” option. In that referendum, it was “None of the above” that received just over 50% of the vote, followed by statehood, which received 46.6% of the vote and independence which received 2.6% of the vote.  The “free association” option received less than 1% of the vote, as did the option to continue the status quo. The fourth and most recent referendum, held in 2012, presented voter with two questions. First, they were asked to vote “Yes” or “No” on the question of whether the island’s current status should be maintained. The second question asked which of three options — statehood, “free association,” or independence the island should pursue. On the first question, 53.97% of the voters voted against maintaining the current Territorial Commonwealth Status while 46.03% voted in favor of maintaining it. On the second question, statehood received 61.16% of the vote, “free association” received 33.34% of the vote, and independence received 5.34% of the vote. Tomorrow’s referendum asks voters to choose between statehood, “free association,” and maintaining the island’s Territorial Commonwealth status. If either independence or “free association” were to win, there would be a second referendum in the future offering voters a choice between the two. One poll related to the referendum, taken in May, shows statehood leading with 52% support, followed by the option to maintain the current status at 17%, “free association” or independence receiving 15%. The poll also showed 7% of respondents undecided and 9% abstaining.

As noted, tomorrow’s referendum is non-binding like all the others have been, and the polling data seems to indicate that statehood will win the battle for the second time. That does not mean, however, that Puerto Rican statehood would be any closer than it is today. The most prominent reason for this, of course, is that the Constitution, in Article IV Section 3 Clause 1 requires Congressional consent to the admission of new states. For several reasons, that is unlikely to be forthcoming. The most prominent reason, of course, is that Puerto Rican statehood would mean at least six additional members of the House of Representatives and two new members to the Senate. Based on the current political makeup of the island, it’s apparent that the majority of the House members, and both of the Senators, would most likely be Democratic, an outcome that if it happened today would reduce the Republican majority to one that stood at 50-50, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Pence. Obviously, Republicans in Congress are not going to agree to this and there may well be some Democrats who would oppose the dilution of their individual voting power in the Senate by the addition of new members.

Beyond these purely political motives, though, there are financial issues that make statehood unlikely for the time being. For a number of years now, the state has been near default on its debts at both the local and island-wide level and has only had success in resolving some of those disputes via negotiation on a limited basis. The crisis worsened largely because the last round of changes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code removed provisions that would have allowed those debtor entities to file for court protection in the same manner that U.S. municipalities can. That law was changed by the last Congress to allow Puerto Rico to take advantage of a modified version of Chapter Nine’s municipal bankruptcy protections. As a result, in May Puerto Rico filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The island is currently under court protection and engaged in court and negotiation battles with creditors that are likely to last for years to come. If the island were to become a state, those bankruptcy issues would likely become a big issue in Congress and there would be increased pressure for a bailout. Given all of that, the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum will be largely symbolic for the time time being.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License. Originally posted to Flickr as BANDERAS DE PUERTO RICO Y USA ONDEANDO

FILED UNDER: Latin America, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Raoul says:

    There is a problem with your headline – it reads forty not fifty.

  2. @Raoul:

    My mistake. Fixed.

  3. Mr Bluster says:

    Puerto Rico my hearts devotion let it sink back in the ocean!

  4. Gustopher says:

    I’m basically opposed to us having commonwealths, territories and colonies. Here we have an island with more people than a lot of our states, where the people have no say in the federal government.

    This is wrong. We shouldn’t have second class citizens in this country.

    Give them statehood, or give them independence. If they want to remain a commonwealth — too bad, sometimes you’ve got to stand up and take responsibility for your own life.

  5. Corsica says:

    Puerto Rico is not a “colony” as so many Puerto Ricans call it. If it was, then they would be forced to speak English, all the signage on the island would be in English and there would be millions of Americans taking over the land and businesses and commerce and push the PR’s to the side which is what the Spanish did to the Taino Indians when it was THEIR colony. Puerto Rico should be independent because right now hundreds of thousands of PR’s are leaving the island every year because there are no jobs and the Dominicans are invading from the Dominican Republic in droves (all illegal) and acting like they own the place. If PR becomes a state then hordes of Dominicans will really stampede to PR like the Mexicans are doing in the US. If PR is independent then it means no US citizenship and no Dominican invasion and everything will be hunky-dory.

  6. Corsica says:

    @Mr Bluster:

    …”always the hurricanes blowing”…