The election was pushed by the governing New Progressive Party, which has long advocated statehood for Puerto Rico and hoped to use the results to persuade Congress to take up Puerto Rico’s status issue once and for all.
Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, when it was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans, who do not pay federal income tax on money made on the island, have been American citizens for 100 years. But they cannot vote in presidential elections and have only one representative in Congress, who also cannot vote.
For the current governing party, that amounts to second-class citizenship for an island with a long history of participation in the United States armed forces. More than 1,200 Puerto Ricans have died serving in the military.
With the income and corporate taxes it would be due as a state, Puerto Rico would not be in its current financial mess, statehood advocates argue. If Puerto Rico had been a state in 2011, it would have received up to $3 billion in additional funding for Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income payments alone, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report.
“Puerto Rico has been a colony of one master or another for over 500 years,” said José Fuentes, a former attorney general who leads a pro-statehood organization in Washington. “Enough is enough.”
Last week, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló signed a law intended to force Congress to act. He will appoint five representatives and two senators who will essentially show up in Washington and request to take their seats. Known as the “Tennessee Plan,” it worked there in 1796.
Many people in Puerto Rico doubt that Congress will be inclined to welcome a state that would have the highest unemployment and poverty rate in the nation. The White House declined a request to comment on Sunday’s vote.
“I think it’s a useless exercise, because we have seen that the Trump administration and Congress have not showed the slightest interest in the process itself, much less the will of the people of Puerto Rico,” said Nestor Duprey, a political analyst here.
Sunday’s vote was marred by allegations that it was framed in a manner designed to tilt the scales toward statehood. The two main opposition parties have urged a boycott.
The Popular Democratic Party, which favors improving but not scrapping Puerto Rico’s current status, has had enough votes to sway the results. When it disputed ballot language in 1998, “none of the above” won. And in 2012, 61 percent of voters opted for statehood — but that figure did not count the nearly half-million ballots that were left blank.
“It’s rigged,” said Héctor Ferrer, head of the Popular Democratic Party. “You cannot participate or validate a process that is schemed to give one candidate or alternative a false advantage.”
The ballot asked voters if they wanted statehood, independence or wished to remain a territory of the United States. The ballot option asking whether voters wished to keep the current political status asked voters to say they wished for Puerto Rico remain “as it is today, subject to the powers of Congress.”
“The title of the law that made this plebiscite is ‘process to decolonize Puerto Rico,’ and one of the alternatives is ‘colony’ as defined by them,” Mr. Ferrer said.
Marcia Rivera, a political scientist here who advocates independence, said people were fuming over the governor’s decision to spend up to $8 million to hold the vote at a time what so many schools were being closed to save money.
“Nobody cares about what happens on Sunday,” she said.
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