Rep. Joe Pittman of Pennsylvania was elected with 17% voter turnout. Senator Markey of Massachusetts won in an election that brought out 27% of the voters. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves won an election that tempted just 29% of eligible voters to come out and speak their minds. New York’s Governor Cuomo was chosen in a primary with just 9.3% of registered Democratic voters. Mayor Bill de Blasio became Mayor of New York City in an election with 14% turnout.
Nobody suggested that any of these winners should not get to keep his seat. All of them were elected.
These are not just a handful of unusual cases.
2012 presidential primary votes averaged 17.3%. 2014 midterm elections across the country averaged just 36.7% voter turnout.
We could continue, but the point should be clear by now: low turnout does not affect the results of votes in the United States.
The 2017 referendum
In 2017, Puerto Rico held a vote on the Island’s political status. Voters had the opportunity to choose among statehood, continuing as a territory, and independence. More than 97% of voters chose statehood.
That’s a pretty clear outcome.
It didn’t surprise anyone. The Independence Party, which has never managed to get as much as 6% of the vote, obviously didn’t expect to win. The Commonwealth Party has won in the past, but its victories were gained on the strength of a myth — the idea that Puerto Rico is not “a mere territory” and that the federal government would negotiate a special status for Puerto Rico: enhanced commonwealth.
In recent years, every branch of the federal government has said clearly that enhanced commonwealth “is not a viable option” and that a vote for “commonwealth” is a vote for continued territory status. That is not a popular option.
Polls before and after the vote showed that the majority of Puerto Rico’s residents favored statehood. They still do.
The solution, for anti-statehood parties, was to boycott the election. Nobody boycotts a vote they can win, but calling a boycott and then harping on voter turnout allowed the anti-statehood factions to confuse people.
The turnout was 23%. That’s a higher percentage than the turnout for Mayor Bill de Blasio or Governor Cuomo. It’s higher than the presidential primaries in 2012. It’s higher than plenty of elections of senators and congresspeople.
Yet news coverage focused on the turnout, not the 97% of voters who chose statehood once again.
Did focusing on low turnout work?
Enough people were confused that Congress was able to say that it’s not clear that Puerto Rico really wants statehood. This took place before the 2017 hurricanes, when fewer than half of stateside Americans knew that Puerto Ricans were citizens.
That situation has changed, as the infographic below shows.
More legislators are aware of Puerto Rico now than in the past. This is important. Because Puerto Rico can’t change her status alone. Congress must take action.
Help educate the people who represent you in Congress. Contact your legislators and make sure they know that you support Puerto Rico’s right to equality through statehood.