Puerto Ricans Protest Referendum on Island's Political Status

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Puerto Ricans largely protested a non-binding referendum on the island's political status on Sunday, with most believing the special election was rigged in favor of statehood.

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At almost 80 percent, Puerto Rico has one of the highest voter participation rates worldwide. However, only 23 percent of registered voters cast their ballots – overwhelmingly, 97 percent, for statehood.

“It was rigged, and not even with trickery could they win,” Héctor Ferrer, the head of the Popular Democratic Party, which advocates for maintaining Puerto Rico’s current colonial status, told The New York Times.

He was one of several leaders who urged for the boycott, arguing that Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, fixed results by manipulating ballot language and election law.

Boycotters, of all opposition groups, also criticized the millions of dollars the pro-statehood party poured into the referendum.

Amid hundreds of school closures, millions in proposed budget cuts to its university and a $72 billion debt, the governing party spent at least $8 million on the referendum and statehood promotion, which the Justice Department urged them to postpone, even withholding $2.5 million in funding.

"The U.S. government did not approve the plebiscite. If it had, it would have provided funding for it, meaning the already taxed people paying for a $72 billion unaudited debt would not have had to front the cost for it,” Yasmin Hernandez, one of millions of Puerto Ricans who sat the voting out, told us.

Hernandez, who is pro-independence, said the protest emerged because the people of Puerto Rico understood that “it was not a true democratic process.”

“I boycotted because I cannot have faith in the electoral process within a colony,” she added.

The boycotted election is going to make it difficult for Gov. Rosselló to persuade Washington that Puerto Rico should become the U.S.' 51st state, even if his party received most of the votes.

“A 97 percent win is the kind of result you get in a one-party regime,” former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá told The New York Times. “Washington will laugh in their faces.”

Still, after announcing the results, Rosselló claimed a victory, saying that, “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.”

Only Congress can approve statehood, and it is unlikely to do so.

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The White House has not commented on the vote, further demonstrating what pro-independence political scientist Marcia Rivera said before the referendum: “Nobody cares about what happens on Sunday.”