Puerto Rico Votes on Status: A Primer on Statehood

Puerto Rico Votes on Status: A Primer on Statehood


With less than 24 hours until election day, our look into the Puerto Rico Status Referendum takes on the seemingly dominant option of the ballot: Statehood. As readers will recall, Puerto Ricans will vote on a two-part question on Election Day concerning their relationship with the United States. On the first part, voters will be asked whether or not they want to continue with the current territorial relationship, currently known as the “commonwealth” option. This question follows the recommendations of the White House in their Task Force Report on Status, since it includes the current status (i.e. the one championed by the Popular Democratic Party) as a stand-alone option for voters. The second question on the ballot asks voters which non-territorial option they prefer: Independence, Sovereign Commonwealth or Statehood.

Statehood: What is it

Under statehood, Puerto Rico would petition Congress for admission as the 51st state. If admitted, it would have approximately 7 representatives and 2 senators, giving it an approximate total of 9 electoral votes (equal to or more than the electoral votes 31 states have as of 2012). As a state, Puerto Rico would finally be subject to federal income taxes (we only pay Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security taxes), but it would benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit (which Fox News’ Stuart Varney places at twenty billion dollars), full parity with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as an increase in federal funds. Puerto Rico would, besides having full representation in Congress, finally end its century-long colonial relationship with the United States.

The Pitch

Statehood advocates have always made it clear that their belief is that life would be better as a state, but that statehood does not require Puerto Ricans to forfeit their culture in favor of the “American culture” (if that can even be deemed a single unifying culture). The statehood party’s founder, Luis A. Ferre, coined the term “estadidad jibara”, which stood for admission to the Union as a state, while keeping all the cultural and linguistic traits we currently have. Puerto Rico would keep Spanish as the main language, and even the Olympic representation it separately enjoys. In the 1980s, then Governor Carlos Romero Barceló championed statehood under his infamously titled book, “Statehood is for the poor,” touting the benefits lower income Puerto Ricans would receive under statehood rather than extolling the civic duties of stateside Americans. In the 90s, then Governor Rosselló (who tried two referendums to further the statehood cause) continued the “estadidad jibara” theme, highlighting the use of Spanish as a state and keeping our cultural institutions. All proponents, however, have stressed the fact that Puerto Ricans have served in all wars since World War I, and as such, deserve equal representation given their sacrifice.

This time around, Governor Fortuño has adopted a similar “estadidad jibara” theme without actually saying it. As highlighted in the commercial “Bandera” (Flag), the subtle theme is that the United States changes, not Puerto Rico. However, independent pro-statehood groups are heavily pushing the economic benefits, echoing the “statehood is for the poor” theme, touting benefits such as the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, additional funds under Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security parity. All statehood campaigns have emphasized that the Puerto Rico economy would benefit greatly from becoming a state, giving investors security about their investment now that it would be a state, rather than a territory with a separate taxation scheme.

Campaign against it

On the other side of the “ring,” the statehood vote faces the crowd of usual critics, stemming from the pro-independence sector as well as the pro-sovereign association sector. Those who actively oppose statehood, rather than simply backing their non-colonial option, claim that statehood will rid Puerto Rico of its Latin culture and idiosyncrasy, in the same way Hawaii’s native culture has been all but decimated. Others point to the argument that the United States will never grant Puerto Rico statehood given its poor economic development and distinct cultural heritage, or because a 51st state would have more or equal electoral pull than 31 states. After all, why would 31 states decide to vote in favor of diminishing their congressional and electoral power?

Importance of the referendum on the fate of statehood

The importance of this particular referendum for the statehood movement cannot be understated. Governor Fortuño took a bold yet controversial step by excluding the current colonial status from the options available to voters, as well as the unconstitutional “enhanced commonwealth” championed by some in the Popular Democratic Party.  By placing the yes-or-no question at the top of the ballot, Governor Fortuño unites the statehood sector with the independence sector in order to achieve 50% against the current colonial status. In the second question, statehood should easily be pushed over the 50% mark, taking into consideration its 46% in the 1998 vote, and at least 4% of pro-commonwealth vote who prefer statehood to independence. However, the polling done so far by the media puts the YES vote (in favor of keeping the current colonial status) slightly ahead of the NO vote (against the current colonial status), while statehood has yet to break the 50% mark in polls.

A loss in this referendum would set back the statehood cause for decades. Critics claim the ballot is stacked up in favor of statehood, an argument that isn’t entirely without merit since it removed the commonwealth option from competing against statehood directly. Failure to achieve a 50%+1 vote would allow Congress (and either presidential candidate) to ignore the results since half of Puerto Rico, for some reason or another, voted against statehood.

The 51st State: Its implications for the United States

Puerto Rico’s admission as a state would have profound changes for the United States. Puerto Rico has made it clear it while it is interested in achieving a greater acceptance of the English language, it will not give up Spanish as its main language. Local courts would still run in Spanish, local agencies would have to continue running in Spanish, and education would still need to be primarily in Spanish. The United States would have to accept a multi-linguistic state without conditioning admission to the full-scale adoption of English (such as New Mexico). As the Latino vote gains higher importance in elections, a fully Latino 51st state would have all the ingredients to shake things up in the Union.

On November 6th, voters will decide.



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