23% of Puerto Ricans Vote in Referendum, 97% of Them for Statehood

23% of Puerto Ricans Vote in Referendum, 97% of Them for Statehood

Voters outside San José Academy in Guaynabo, P.R. The island territory held its fifth referendum on what political relationship it wants with the United States. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

SAN JUAN, P.R. — With schools shuttered, pensions at risk and the island under the authority of an oversight board in New York City, half a million Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to become America’s 51st state, in a flawed election most voters sat out.

With nearly all of the precincts reporting, 97 percent of the ballots cast were in favor of statehood, a landslide critics said indicated that only statehood supporters had turned out to the polls. Opposition parties who prefer independence or remaining a territory boycotted the special election, which they considered rigged in favor of statehood.

On an island where voter participation often hovers around 80 percent, just 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Voting stations accustomed to long lines were virtually empty on Sunday.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said he planned to take the victory to Washington and press Congress to admit Puerto Rico to the union.

“From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico,” he said in a brief televised speech after the voting results were announced.

But his political opponents who do not want statehood argued that heading to Congress with such lopsided results would actually hurt the governor’s cause.

“A 97 percent win is the kind of result you get in a one-party regime,” former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá said in an interview. “Washington will laugh in their faces.”

Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, when the island was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War. Sunday’s nonbinding referendum was the fifth time during Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States that Puerto Ricans voted on their future. They have generally chosen from statehood, independence and remaining a territory.

But the process is usually marred, with ballot language phrased to favor the party in office. In 1998, “none of the above” was the top winner. In 2012, 61 percent of counted votes went to statehood — and half a million ballots were left blank.

But this time, the vote came a few weeks after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in the face of $74 billion in debt and $49 billion in pension obligations it cannot pay. More than 150 public schools are being closed as a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans head for the mainland and those who remain brace for huge cuts to public services. Decisions are now in the hands of a bankruptcy judge.

Voters said that Puerto Rico needed the United States now more than ever.

“If there’s an earthquake in Puerto Rico, who is going to send the help? The Americans! This is their land!” said Gladys Martínez Cruz, 73, a retired tax clerk in San Juan’s Barrio Obrero neighborhood. “We need someone who is going to support us, send us money. There’s a lot of hunger in Puerto Rico, even with the help we get.”

Many Puerto Ricans, like Ms. Martínez, live off food stamps, public housing vouchers or other federal programs and worry that a change in political status could affect that aid. A huge publicity campaign warned voters that their citizenship could be at risk.

“I want my children and grandchildren to keep their American citizenship,” said Maira Rentas, a cardiac nurse in San Juan. “Little by little, with whatever votes we get, we have to try to become a state.”

Ana Velázquez, 50, a hospital secretary, said Puerto Rico’s economic problems were so great that they overshadowed other considerations, such as the language, culture and identity that could be lost if the island became a state.

Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló walking by supporters after voting on Sunday. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“I don’t want to lose my hymn, my coat of arms, my flag. My beauty queen would no longer be ‘Miss Puerto Rico,’” Ms. Velázquez said. “I don’t see myself ever singing the United States national anthem. I really don’t. But Puerto Rico is in really bad shape, and it needs help.”

So she arrived at the same conclusion as many other Puerto Ricans: She did not vote.

Héctor Ferrer, the head of the Popular Democratic Party, which had urged a boycott, emphasized that eight out of 10 Puerto Rican voters chose to spend the day at church, on the beach or with their families. He argued that the governing party had manipulated the ballot language and even election law to fix the results.

“It was rigged, and not even with trickery could they win,” Mr. Ferrer said.

The ballot option asked voters who wanted to remain a United States territory to say they wished for Puerto Rico to stay “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.

Mr. Ferrer’s party complained about the ballot choices to the Justice Department, which withheld $2.5 million in funding for Sunday’s voting and had urged the Puerto Rican government to hold off until the ballot could be reviewed. Puerto Rico made changes but moved forward without money or approval from the Justice Department.

The election was pushed by the governing New Progressive Party, which has long advocated statehood for Puerto Rico.

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 people with a long history of participation in the United States armed forces.

“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.”

With the income and corporate taxes it would receive 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 half the per capita income of America’s poorest state, Mississippi.

“We are not going to make Puerto Rico great again. It has never been great under the U.S. flag,” Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state here, said Sunday after casting his ballot. “The way to make it great is through statehood.”

Last week, Governor 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 at all 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.

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 when so many schools are being closed to save money.

“Nobody cares about what happens on Sunday,” she said.