Puerto Rico votes to become America’s 51st state in non-binding referendum

(AP photo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans faced a fundamental question on their ballots this past Election Day: Should they change their ties with the United States?

Election Day is a holiday in the U.S. island territory and the streets were quiet Tuesday, except around polling stations. Puerto Rico does not get a vote in the U.S. presidential election.

But many are excited for a chance to vote in a referendum that asks voters if they want to change the relationship to the United States.

A second question gives voters three alternatives: become the 51st U.S. state, independence, or “sovereign free association,” a designation that would give more autonomy for the territory of 4 million people.

As of Wednesday morning, 54% voted to change the island’s status.  As to the second question, 61% want statehood, 33% are for sovereign free association, and about 5.5% are for independence.

Those results are with nearly 96% of polling stations reported.

President Obama earlier expressed support for the referendum and pledged to respect the will of the people in the event of a clear majority.

It is unclear whether U.S. Congress will debate the referendum results or if Mr. Obama will consider the results to be a clear enough majority.

Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who has championed statehood, did not return calls for comment. He received 48 percent or 874,914 votes, while his opponent, Rafael Cox Alomar, received 47 percent or 855,732 votes with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

The island is currently a U.S. territory whose inhabitants are U.S. citizens but are prohibited from voting in presidential elections. Its resident commissioner in the U.S. House also has limited voting powers.

The future of the island’s political status, however, also is dependent on who governs the island.

According to partial election results, pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuno was ousted by a razor thin margin by an opponent who supports the island’s current political status.

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, challenger Alejandro Garcia Padilla with the Popular Democratic Party received 48 percent or 870,005 votes. Fortuno, a Republican and leader of the New Progressive Party, received 47 percent or 855,325 votes.

Fortuno has not issued comment, while Garcia celebrated what he called a victory.

“I can assure you we have rescued Puerto Rico,” Garcia said. “This is a lesson to those who think that the well-being of Puerto Ricans should be subjected to ideologies.”

Election results also pointed to a major upset for Jorge Santini, who has been mayor of the capital of San Juan for 12 years. His opponent, Carmen Yulin Cruz, received 71,736 votes compared with Santini’s 66,945 votes with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

The island’s elections commission said it would resume counting votes late Wednesday morning.

Credit: The Associated Press.

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