Puerto Rico Is Voting On Statehood: What's At Stake?

The vote for Puerto Rico's 2017 referendum for statehood is June 11. Voters will choose among three items: the status quo, statehood and independence.
Posted at 9:57 AM, Jun 12, 2017

For the fifth time in its history, Puerto Rico is voting on its status with the United States. The vote is symbolic, but it's still important.

The last time Puerto Rico voted on statehood was 2012, but it was left with inconclusive results. That's because not everyone answered both parts of the ballot. So only 44 percent of the ballots actually reflected that voters wanted statehood.

Many are hoping that won't happen this time — because Puerto Rico has a lot at stake.

The island territory is suffering from a decadelong recession, and now has about $123 billion worth of debt and pension obligations.

Congress decided earlier last year to manage Puerto Rico's finances and create a Financial Oversight and Management Board with budget veto power. This board effectively declares bankruptcy, which would protect the territory from creditors and take steps toward economic stability.

But the board also came with some drawbacks. Government workers in Puerto Rico lost their pensions, and public services got their budgets slashed.

For the past two months, students from the University of Puerto Rico protested the oversight board's proposal to cut $450 million from the school. The protest has shut down classes for more than 50,000 students.

So how would statehood change this situation?

Advocates like Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló argue statehood would mean more bankruptcy protections and more access to federal funds and health care benefits. But the biggest argument for statehood is simply more autonomy.

"Our civil rights commission clearly stated that every day that Puerto Rico remains a territorial colony of the United States, our human, civil, and democratic rights are being violated," Rosselló said at the 2016 National Convention for the League of United American Citizens.

On Sunday, the ballot will have one question and three choices: keep things the way they are, become a state or break away from the U.S. completely.

Again, this vote is still symbolic. Even if a majority of Puerto Ricans vote for statehood, only Congress has the power to make it happen.