Puerto Rico casts symbolic vote for statehood

A woman leaves a voting booth as Puerto Ricans head to the polls on Sunday to decide whether they want their struggling US territory to become the 51st USA state, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Among those eager for the USA territory to become the 51st state is Pedro Pierluisi, the island's former congressional representative.

No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums, with voters nearly evenly divided between statehood and the status quo.

While President Trump signaled during his presidential campaign that he is open to Puerto Rico officially becoming a state, in April he tweeted his opposition to any bailout of the territory.

But that didn't stop Gov. Ricardo Rossello from vowing to push ahead with his administration's quest to make the island the 51st US state and declaring that "Puerto Rico voted for statehood".

Pro-independence supporters protest against Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state.

David Aldarondo, a 31-year-old law student from Fishkill, New York, has lived in Puerto Rico for almost a decade and said he believes independence is the best option.

For decades the territory enjoyed a USA federal tax exemption that attracted many American companies to set up shop - but those breaks were ended in 2006, prompting firms to leave the island en masse.

US Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who was born in Puerto Rico, dismissed the process as a "dog and pony show" and said the low turnout means the results can't be trusted.

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The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting US citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers. Also, Puerto Ricans living on the USA mainland, who outnumber those on the island, tend to be more in favor of independence but could not cast ballots in the referendum.

Puerto Rico's governor said the territory will now put its "Tennessee plan" into action, meaning it will choose two senators and five representatives to go to Washington, D.C., to request statehood. According to a survey conducted in March by the Rasmussen Report, 40 percent of Americans believe Puerto Rico should be a state, up from 35 percent in 2013.

The official results recorded that just 23% of the island's 2.3 million registered voters turned out to cast their ballot, compared with 55% in last November's gubernatorial election won by the PNP candidate Ricardo Rosselló.

Congress, the only body that can approve new states, will ultimately decide whether the status of the u.s. commonwealth changes.

"From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico", Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the nation's largest police union, called for a boycott of the annual celebration by Americans with roots on the Caribbean island, home to 3.5 million residents.

In the non-binding referendum, voters were asked to pick one of three options: statehood, independence or to remain as a US-territory.

How would everyday life change if the island became a U.S. state?

"The US government has no obligation to pay attention to the result", he said, arguing that it will "lack legitimacy" if a significant part of the electorate abstains.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department told The Associated Press that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's revised language. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change.

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