The main thing to know about the June 11 plebiscite is that 97% of voters chose statehood from the three viable options. It has been clear from the beginning that people who didn’t vote in that election would not be counted. Opposition parties called for a boycott specifically because they knew they couldn’t win. They hoped to discredit the referendum, and they are still trying to do that.
But can statehood come from a plebiscite in which statehood didn’t get 50% of all possible votes? Some are saying that it can’t. Here are some facts to consider.
How many people voted in the 2017 plebiscite?
518,199 people voted in the referendum on June 11.
The actual number of voters in the plebiscite is 33% of active voters in Puerto Rico. The voting list that led to the 23% claim reflects those who voted last in 2008. We have lost close to 800,000 residents since then. As we’ll discuss below, the specific number of voters doesn’t really matter, but since some people are focusing on these numbers, it’s important to get them right.
What did the non-voters want?
El Nuevo Dia, the largest daily circulation publication in Puerto Rico and a known anti-statehood advocate, published the results of their post-vote polling of residents. An earlier poll had surprised them by suggesting that 70% of those surveyed intend to get out and vote in the plebiscite. When the numbers of voters turned out so much smaller, the researchers at El Nuevo Dia called those surveyed and asked whether they had in fact voted and if not, why not.
Only 7% of potential voters actually did not vote because of the boycott advocated by the anti-statehood parties. The majority of non-voters gave these reasons for their decision not to vote:
- They didn’t find the time to do so.
- “Statehood is going to win anyway”– that is, even without their votes.
- “Congress did not approve the plebiscite” — that is, the outcome would not be supported by Congress, no matter what that outcome was.
In fact, the ballot was changed to meet the requirements of the Department of Justice, and all the viable status options were on the ballot. Voters could choose the current territorial status if they want the status quo. They could choose independence, too. And they could choose statehood, as 97% of the voters did. The descriptions of the options were changed to meet the requirements of the DOJ, too. The DOJ was concerned that voters might think the Free Associated State option was the same old “enhanced commonwealth,” so the wording was changed to make sure that voters would understand what they were voting for. The DOJ was also concerned that the ballot didn’t make it clear that the territorial option includes U.S. citizenship, so the phrasing was changed to make that clear as well. No political party was completely happy with the options, but they met the requirements of the federal government.
“The results of this exercise are clear and conclusive,” says writer Jose D. Alfonso. “The main reasons for the abstention show a picture of apathy, demotivation and suspicion, above militancy with the parties that called for a boycott of their followers.”
Their polls among Puerto Residents over the last month showed strong support for statehood, from 66% to 79% among likely voters. Support for the current territorial status was at 16% and support for free association or independence was 15% at its highest.
The opposition parties are trying to say that more than half a million people voted for statehood — so the rest of Puerto Rico doesn’t want statehood. Indeed, they are trying to count all those who chose not to vote as people who want the current territorial status. There is simply no reason to believe that. The data from El Nuevo Dia supports the common sense position that over half a million people voted for statehood, very small numbers voted for the two other options, and we have no actionable information from the people who did not vote.
How many people need to vote?
There is no minimum required number or percentage of voters. There is no required quorum. In the United States — and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States — decisions are made by those who show up.
That statement, “Decisions are made by those who show up,” is usually attributed to President Harry Truman. Many more people have said it since then, because it is an accurate statement of how democracy works.
The wording of the ballot said specifically that people who didn’t vote would not be counted. Political groups that tried to say otherwise were deceiving their constituents.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said this: “Those who stand to gain financially from a continuation of the status quo will seek to delegitimize the results of this federally authorized plebiscite. I wrote the law making this plebiscite possible so Congress could get a clear understanding of the wishes of the American citizens of Puerto Rico. They have now sent a clear and unambiguous message that they want to transition from a territory to a state. Congress needs to begin looking at ways to fulfill the wishes of these fellow Americans, as it has for all previous territories that voted for statehood.”
Former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) said it even more baldly: “The so-called boycott is a political posture whereby you can claim that the absence of votes is supporting you. This is dubious logic at best. If you want to oppose a position then you need to vote against it, otherwise you are consenting to having the other voters who do participate make that choice on your behalf. A boycott is essentially an admission to defeat, as no one boycotts an election they could win.”
In short, voter turnout doesn’t affect the outcome of a vote in the United States.
After the 2012 plebiscite, even after the White House declared that vote “a clear result,” the people who benefited from the status quo made an effort to discredit the vote. They were successful in giving Congress an excuse not to take action. This time, we must make it clear that we won’t accept inaction.
Contact your legislators. Use our email tool to make it easy. Use the Shout Out tool on the right on this page to tweet to your reps — that’s easy, too. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Sign the petition at SupportStatehood.com.
Congress has never yet refused a territory that voted for statehood. But your representatives have a lot on their minds. If you don’t make sure they know that the people who vote for them care about Puerto Rico, they may not think about it. We must make them care.
We are closer to statehood than ever before. It’s the home stretch. Don’t give up now.