Statehood wins questioned Puerto Rico referendum

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JULY 01: The Puerto Rican flag flies near the Capitol building (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s governor says the U.S. territory has overwhelmingly chosen statehood in a non-binding referendum.

Ricardo Rossello said Sunday that the island has sent a strong and clear message to U.S. Congress and the world.

Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, more than 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for independence. The participation rate was nearly 23 percent with roughly 2.26 million registered voters.

But many question the validity of the vote amid a low turnout and a boycott by several opposition parties.

U.S. Congress has final say on any changes to the U.S. territory’s political status, regardless of the referendum’s final outcome.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot’s language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory’s current status as an option. The administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello added it and sent the ballot back for review, but the department said it needed more time and asked that the vote be postponed, which it wasn’t.

Sunday’s referendum was the fifth for Puerto Rico.

No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums, with voters almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change. Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but nearly half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the results weren’t legitimate.

Some statehood supporters on Sunday expressed dismay that certain voting centers appeared empty.

“We are worse off than I thought, in the sense that we don’t give a damn what happens to this island,” said Jose Miranda, a retired TV and radio producer who lived 30 years in the U.S. mainland and is returning because he believes life is better over there.

He also criticized austerity measures including imposing new taxes to help turn around the island’s economy.

“That’s a pipe dream,” he said. “What we need here is a radical change.”