Puerto Ricans Choose Statehood

Residents of the territory voted affirmatively to become the 51st U.S. state, but the island's political future remains unclear.

Residents of Puerto Rico voted Tuesday to change the territory's relationship with the United States and become the 51st state in the union. The referendum is nonbinding, and statehood would still require approval from Congress. But the vote could represent an important milestone for Puerto Rico.

The statehood option was approved by a narrow majority of voters, according to the Associated Press:

The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo. Ninety-six percent of 1,643 precincts were reporting as of early Wednesday.

The second question asked voters to choose from three options, with statehood by far the favorite, garnering 61 percent. Sovereign free association, which would have allowed for more autonomy, received 33 percent, while independence got 5 percent.

President Obama last year said he would support "a clear decision" by the people of Puerto Rico on the issue of statehood.

But it's too soon to start adding a star to the American flag. By constitutional law, Congress must approve statehood for the territory, and it's not clear where Congressional leaders stand on the issue.

Some Puerto Rico leaders have been working to get the territory's fiscal house in order, in part to improve its status in the eyes of Congress and other mainlanders. Puerto Rico has reduced its spending by 20 percent in just the past two years, largely through innovative public-private partnerships, according to a column by Governing's Paul Taylor back in January:

There’s a sense that Puerto Rico is preparing to emerge as an equal to states, not an appendage, dependent on the republic. The territory, with a land mass and population roughly equal to Connecticut and three times that of Rhode Island, is getting increased attention on the mainland. "Puerto Rico is a full member and an equal participant among states about ideas and best practices for governing well,” says John Mountjoy, [the Council of State Governments'] director of policy and research. “They’re not at the kids' table."

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism