SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor is vowing to make the U.S. territory the 51st state after statehood won in a non-binding referendum hit by a boycott and low turnout that raised questions about the vote’s legitimacy.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello told a couple hundred supporters waving U.S. flags late Sunday that he will soon create a commission to appoint two senators and five representatives to demand statehood from the U.S. Congress, which has to approve any changes to the island’s political status.
“The United States of America will have to obey the will of our people!” Rossello yelled to a crowd clutching U.S. flags and dancing to a tropical jingle that promoted statehood.
But experts say it is highly unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress would acknowledge Sunday’s results, let alone accept them because Puerto Rico tends to favor Democrats.
The referendum has sparked dozens of memes that turned viral, including some showing the tropical island covered in snow.
More than half a million people voted for statehood during Sunday’s referendum, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status. Voter turnout was just 23 percent.
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, noted Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He told The Associated Press even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the previous referendum in 2012.
Rossello brushed aside those concerns, noting that the referendum was a democratic process in which the majority prevailed as he questioned why more people did not come out to defend alternatives to statehood. He also said participation rates varied from 7 percent to 35 percent for states including Wisconsin and Hawaii when they were ratified as states.
Three of Puerto Rico’s political parties including the main opposition party had called on their supporters to boycott the referendum, which they labeled a failure.
Former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who did not seek re-election last year and whose party supports the status quo, rejected Sunday’s results.
“Whoever claims that statehood triumphed is being intellectually dishonest,” he said. “The boycott defeated statehood.”
The referendum coincided with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
Many believe the island’s territorial status has contributed to its economic crisis, largely caused by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.
Puerto Rico is exempt from the U.S. federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than U.S. states.
“We have been a colony for 500 years, and we have had U.S. citizenship for 100 years, but it’s been a second class one,” Rossello said.
Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have fled to the U.S. mainland to escape the island’s 10-year economic recession and 12 percent unemployment rate.
Those who remain behind have faced new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the U.S. mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.