I was confused by the logic of the Puerto Rico boycott of the statehood referendum. While it's true that 97% voted for statehood, that represents a paltry 23% of the residents in total

From the NY Times

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.

Many pro-state forces are reporting only the winning percentage and not the turnout. It seems to be counterintuitive. What was the thinking here?

  • 6
    Probably to de-legitimize the referendum
    – Magisch
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 12:44

3 Answers 3


The main point of objection by the boycotters is that the referendum essentially does not accomplish anything. It is not legally binding and would not significantly advance the movement for statehood or independence; therefore, opponents feel that boycotting it emphasizes its ineffectiveness.

Part of the rationale for the opposition parties is that Congress is unlikely to take any action. For one thing, Congress ignored the previous referendum, where over 61% of Puerto Ricans who voted called for statehood. Many ballots were left blank, and government officials claimed that this meant that the results could not be trusted. Nevertheless, many Puerto Ricans do not believe Congress would do any better this time, in part because the referendum is non-binding.

The boycotters assume, largely, that Congress won't do anything. It would still seem that voting couldn't do any harm. However, many oppose the very idea of the referendum, either on principle or practicality:

  • The referendum cost somewhere in the range of $8 to $11 million dollars - a symbolically sizable cost for an island mired deep in debt. Opponents argue that the money should have been used for something else.
  • The fact that the referendum is not binding has led some party members to call it "inconsequential"; they feel that voting would give the referendum authority.
  • Boycotts had been called for many weeks in advance. Originally, there were only two options on the ballot: independence or statehood. The Department of Justice ordered a third option that better suited many Puerto Ricans, namely, continuing their current state. The DOJ did not have time to fully review the final options.
  • The ballot itself uses the word "decolonization" - another indication, some say, that the referendum is not consistent with the attitude of Puerto Ricans toward their current status.

The above meant that many Puerto Ricans saw the referendum as biased towards statehood, especially given that the governor, known as strongly pro-statehood, was the figure pushing it. The New York Times article you cited noted that referendums in the past have often been criticized as biased towards one side. Therefore, boycotting let the opposition parties challenge the process.

In a nutshell, boycotters see the referendum as an ineffective, financially-draining, and biased move on the part of those supporting statehood. By boycotting it and being able to claim that the result simply doesn't represent the opinions of all Puerto Ricans, they can criticize it and try to nullify the result. It's unclear if they would have had a chance to gain more than 50% of the vote between the other two options; previous polls showed that the option for statehood had only around %52 of the vote.

  • Why would they bother? It's a non binding resolution, that costs money to put on, and doesn't add up to dry waste material. I would ask why PR doesn't get the ball rolling officially on becoming a state. Study how Alaska and Hawaii became states for examples. Hint: they didn't do it with a non binding resolution. It would be a nice boost to the flag making industry.
    – tj1000
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 20:26
  • @tj1000 It's not clear that it would matter if PR "got the ball rolling." The other states would have vote to approve its entry in the end. I'd imaging most Americans don't even really think about PR, let alone whether it should be a state. I have no idea what those that do think about it, although I personally think they'd have to clean up the financial mess to even have a shot.
    – Andy
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 21:58
  • 2
    The Brexit referendum was also not binding, but it is still being followed through.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 8:34
  • 1
    @vsz the difference ebing that the organisers of the brexit referendum ( the UK government) had the abiliity to enact that change, whereas, it sounds like the change is out of PR hands. Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 11:01

We can look at the 2012 voter turn out for a similar turnout 1 . In this we can see that Statehood had won with 61%.

In this election we can see that over 500,000 blank votes were submitted in protest due to a more developed version of their current status not being on the ballot.

So what's happened since 2012.

Well the improved current status is still not on the table.

  1. Puerto Rico's debt bubble has popped which some congressmen (need to find a source) were on record if I recall saying that they would not vote for Puerto Rico due to this.
  2. 37% of the island was on Food Stamps in 2012 or receiving some type of welfare 2 . I am unable to find current statistics regarding this. So please take this point with a grain of salt
  3. Labor Participation rate under 50% 3

Points 2 and 3 were a main reason in 2012 why Congressmen would not even consider Statehood for Puerto Rico as if they would become a State they would see extra benefits which would be a major investment/expense for the mainland US.

All of these compound together to make feelings of disenfranchisement/Alienation of the people. With conditions becoming worse and their options not being expanded the people are left with the question of "Does their vote matter?". Many may feel it does not or it does not have a chance as such there is no point in voting. Those whose option is not represented may simply wish to invalidate the vote as Magisch pointed out.

Also I hope I did the source tag right for once

  • I clicked the link on #2 (food stamps). The number used in this bullet is not current, as implied by the "what's happened since" heading, but from 5 years ago (2012 happens to be the year food stamp usage was highest nationwide). A minor rephrase could probably make this clearer.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 14:18

Congress has been toying with Puerto Rico since just after the second world war, by dangling the carrot of statehood in front of them, but always finding a reason not to grant it. The usual reason given is there just is not enough support for it among the residents.

This election ended up with a 97% support for statehood. This, combined with an over 60% vote in the last major vote, should put congress in a position of having to accept that there is an internal desire for the island to become the 51st state.

So it should either open the eyes of the supporters that Congress is not ever going to give PR statehood and the support, and rights that go along with it. So unless Congress chooses to make PR a state those sides will likely benefit in a growth of support.

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