Puerto Ricans vote on statehood question

A government website for the status referendum, Puerto Rico's fifth since 1967, showed 97 percent of roughly 485,000 votes counted so far in favor of becoming the 51st US state.

"I'm not voting. The government has spent millions of dollars on this campaign hoping that statehood wins, but even if it does, the U.S. Congress won't want to do anything about it", 54-year-old Felix Salasarar told reporters.

This is the fifth time a non-binding referendum has been put before the island's voters.

He argues that statehood would help Puerto Rico in its attempt to face down its debt crisis.

Following the results, Governor Ricardo Roselló said, "An overwhelming majority voted for statehood".

"I would like to see Puerto Rico become a state, " said Sonia Vargas, 51, a Brooklyn-born bookkeeper who now lives in Ohio.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the opposition Popular Democratic Party plans to boycott Sunday's referendum.

Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the USA mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive. Puerto Rico has been under the control of the United States since 1898, and certain political parties are pushing for independence from the United States entirely. It means Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship, but can't vote in presidential elections and have just one congressional representative, who has limited voting powers. This year, it comes on the same day Puerto Ricans vote among three choices: independence, statehood or their current territorial status.

Many Puerto Ricans doubt Congress can be convinced to incorporate the island, especially in the island's current economic condition, The New York Times reported. When the previous plebiscite was held in 2012, 61% of those who voted were in favour of statehood, but the reaction from Washington was a deafening silence.

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Becoming the 51st star on the USA flag would instill "new hope" in Puerto Ricans, she told AFP, as well as sorely needed economic aid.

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. "If we were a state, we would have the same rights".

Many believe the island's territorial status has contributed to its 10-year economic recession, which has prompted almost half a million Puerto Ricans to flee to the USA mainland and was largely sparked by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.

"This plebiscite failed to live up to that standard, and the deck was stacked throughout the process, " she said in a statement.

Given the low voter turn-out and the failure of the U.S. DOJ to certify the plebiscite, Congress is likely to ignore the outcome of this vote - much as it did in 2012.

Sunday's referendum is the fifth one for Puerto Rico.

Those who remain behind have faced new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the USA mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive. 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.

A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's language.

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