Puerto Rico votes for U.S. statehood in disputed referendum

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Voters in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have overwhelmingly chosen to become a state, but the extremely low turnout as a result of a boycott threatens to undermine the credibility of the non-binding vote.

Asked which status Puerto Rico should have, more than 97 percent of voters chose statehood, against 1.5 percent who chose independence or free association and 1.3 percent who prefer to continue the status quo.

But despite the overwhelming vote in favor of statehood, several opposition parties had urged residents to boycott the referendum, raising questions about the validity of the vote Only 23 percent of registered voters showed up to cast a ballot.

The results of Sunday’s referendum are non-binding as only the U.S. Congress has the power to change the territory’s political status. Nonetheless, the results could renew calls for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to take on the issue.

Responding to Sunday’s vote, several lawmakers expressed support for Puerto Rico becoming the 51st U.S. state. They include U.S. Congressman Darren Soto (D-FL), U.S. Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), and U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA).

“I will always support equality through statehood for the 3.4 million American citizens that reside in Puerto Rico,” Murphy said. “Given their contributions to our nation in times of war and peace for well over a century, they deserve to have the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow citizens living in Florida and every other state.”

Murphy brushed off concern about the low turnout. “The ballot was fair and those who voted overwhelmingly chose statehood. In our democracy, only those who show up to vote get counted,” the congresswoman said in a statement.

The territory’s status has long been the subject of criticism. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens yet they lack certain basic rights, such as the right to vote in presidential elections. They also lack full representation in Congress, where only a non-voting commissioner is able to represent the territory.

“We are American citizens yet we don’t have the same rights. There needs to be a path forward. I want to have equal treatment,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, who supports the bid for statehood, told CNN in an interview.

The territory’s political status has been a dispute for decades, during which 5 referendums have been organized.

One such referendum took place in November 2012, when turnout reached more than 78 percent. About 54 percent of voters said the territorial status should change, of whom 61 percent said statehood would be the best option, versus 33 percent who chose free association and 5.5 percent who chose independence.

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