Puerto Ricans in November face a simple ballot question: “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?”
The island territory, whose statehood has long been the subject of debate, has put the question on the ballot six times since 1967, but the movement has not garnered significant support. Proponents of the latest ballot question, which would trigger a nonbinding resolution whose language is unapproved by the Justice Department, hope that its straightforward wording will produce a different outcome.
The referendum comes after a 2017 vote on the same question, which, although it netted 97% support for statehood, only drove a 23% turnout. The result was contested because the Popular Democratic Party, the second-largest faction in Puerto Rico’s legislature, encouraged a boycott, claiming the vote was rigged by the New Progressive Party in favor of statehood.
Then-Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a speech after the 2017 vote that the results show “the federal government will no longer be able to ignore” the will of Puerto Rico’s 3 million inhabitants. Rossello resigned in disgrace last year amid backlash to his handling of the damage done in 2017 by Hurricane Maria.
The latest vote will occur amid the political fallout of Rossello’s departure, as well as still unaddressed hurricane destruction. Recent polls show that Puerto Rico is divided on the attempt to push forward with its cause for statehood. An October poll conducted by Gaither International found that 42% support the ballot measure, while only 27% oppose it. The rest remain unsure. A September Beacon Research poll delivered similar results.
Still, even if Puerto Ricans decide that they want to become a state, it is unlikely that Congress will consider the bid while under Republican control. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2019 said that he would not bring a vote on statehood to the floor, claiming that the move was a ploy to secure two more Democratic Senate seats. As the election approaches, McConnell said he will not support statehood.
President Trump in 2018 said he is an “absolute no” on statehood.
At the same time, Democrats have championed the cause for statehood. Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most forceful voices in favor of the measure, co-led an effort in August for the territory to become a state without Congress’s approval.
“Puerto Rico needs to be afforded the freedom to design its own future,” she wrote in an op-ed, along with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, noting her own Puerto Rican descent.
Ocasio-Cortez’s recommendation was rejected by New Progressive Party leaders, who, as in 2017, are leading the push for statehood.
Nationally, polls show that Puerto Rico’s cause for statehood is a partisan issue, with Democrats overwhelmingly supporting it and Republicans generally opposing it.
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