Puerto Rico’s governor campaigned in Washington Thursday to make the U.S. territory the 51st state, touting a vote that showed 97 percent support for statehood and brushing aside critics who questioned its legitimacy.
More than 500,000 people on the island voted for statehood in a non-binding referendum this past weekend. But eight out of 10 eligible voters did not vote, a historically low turnout. The main opposition party and other parties boycotted the referendum, calling it a waste of resources in a time of financial crisis.
“A waste of resources is not having equal rights," Governor Ricardo Rosselló told NBC following an appearance at the National Press Club. "A waste of resources is being on a Medicaid cliff because of the people of Puerto Rico, the citizens of Puerto Rico, don’t have the same access to resources than in the United States."
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Rosselló said that there have been two plebiscites in the past five years and the previous one had "similar results" with an 80 percent voter participation rate.
The 2012 vote delivered 61 percent support for statehood, though half a million people left ballots blank, according to The New York Times.
Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens, but can’t vote in presidential elections and have a non-voting member of Congress. They are also exempt from paying federal income taxes, but pay into Social Security and Medicare and receive less federal funding than U.S. states, The Associated Press has reported. They also pay local taxes. Unemployment is 12 percent on the island, where millions have fled a 10-year recession.
It’s up to the U.S. Congress to decide whether to take up the issue of Puerto Rico’s status.
During his appearance at the National Press Club, Rosselló was accompanied by Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Darren Soto, D-Fla.
"As part of the democratic exercise last Sunday on our island, today we are making sure that Congress and other international organizations such as the OAS [Organization of American States] receive the message that Puerto Ricans are claiming equal rights as American citizens," Rosselló said. "It is up to this generation of Puerto Ricans to demand the end of the undignified colonial relationship, and begin a process of transition for the incorporation of Puerto Rico as the new state in the union."