Beyond the Surface: Puerto Rico’s November 2012 Referendum

A lot of confusing reports have circulated outside Puerto Rico in the past few days regarding the results of the November 6, 2012 non-binding referendum on the island’s colonial status that was part of the local general elections.

In response, I produced on Wednesday, November 7, an earlier version of this table and posted on Facebook. Below I explain the table and point out how it’s only slightly different from the original one I posted on Facebook.

Why this Table?

This table presents an initial look at the numbers that tries to go “beyond the surface” of the basic number reported by most media outlets.

The referendum asked voters two questions. Questions #1, “Condición Política Actual” (Today’s Political “Condition” [status vis-à-vis the US]), asked voters whether they supported a continuation of the current status, which it defined as a “territorial” one (more on that further below). These are the numbers the government’s Electoral Commission reported as of November 8th:

However, the key number reported by the media is that 61% of Puerto Ricans voters on the island had for the first time supported the idea of becoming a state of the United States. This comes from Question #2: “Opciones No Territoriales” (Non-Territorial Conditions), in which voters were offered only the following alternatives: Statehood, Independence, and one described as “Estado Libre Asociado Soberano” (Free Associated State with Sovereignty). I will comment further below on this third option. Below are the numbers reported as of November 8th. For the sake of keeping this section of the table tidy, I have translated the third option as “Sovereign Commonwealth.”

However, as some commentators began pointing out on Wednesday, November 7, focusing on this number alone is quite misleading.

Putting aside momentarily the tricks used by the pro–statehood island government in formulating the questions asked, the approach presented in here suggests that support for statehood was NOT really the 61% reported by the local elections board and widely highlighted by the media.

The Issue of the “Blank” Ballots” for Question #2

The first problem is that a significant number of voters seemed to be so displeased with the options given in Question #2 (options for a new political status, or relationship to the United States) that they instead “voted” blank ballots.

Reports from the island indicate that this was a strategy openly advocated by some supporters of the current status, officially known in Spanish as “Estado Libre Asociado” (ELA, “Free Associated State”) but usually, and to me very–misleadingly, translated as “Commonwealth” (Virginia, for example, is a “Commonwealth,” but it’s a state).

One can easily understand why hundreds of thousands would deposit blank ballots: the definition of ELA given in Question #2 was “ELA with “sovereignty,” a reference to the fact that still today legal sovereignty over Puerto Rico is held by the US Congress under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris with Spain, which followed the US military conquest of the island in the Spanish–American War, and the provisions of the US Constitution regarding territories owned by the US.

However, as almost anyone who has lived for any significant amount of time in Puerto Rico would readily acknowledge, for decades the pro–statehood PNP, and even many conservative pro–ELA supporters, have implanted in the minds of Puerto Ricans a deep–seated fear not just of independence, but also of the word “sovereignty” and use this term in reference to any proposals by ELA supporters who want to reformulate ELA to transfer to Puerto Rico specific elements of US authority over the island.

Any such “reformed” ELA ideas have been almost invariably attacked as a stage leading to independence, and its supporters labelled as being anti–Americans covertly conspiring to “bring independence through the back door.”

In a country where polling data, as well as public and private discourse, shows that most people value, for a wide variety of reasons, their US citizenship and the concrete material benefits (Social Security and Veteran benefits, Pell Grants, food stamps, disability benefits, etc.) they “receive” from the US federal government, it is hardly surprising that in a head-to-head match between statehood and an “ELA with sovereignty” more people would support statehood.

But there’s more to the results of the referendum than just this issue of the “blank” ballots.

Did Statehood Really Get 61% Support?

Furthermore, unlike most other commentators, who have focused on the issue of the “blank” ballots for Question #2, this table also compares the support in Question #1 for the current ELA status with support for the only options given to voters in Question #2, which intentionally excluded the current status.

For decades the pro-statehood party (PNP, Partido Nuevo Progresista) dreamed of setting up a referendum in which statehood would not compete head-to-head with the current status and that would force Puerto Rican voters to vote for either statehood or independence, delegitimizing in the process the current ELA status and any viable reformulated–ELA alternatives. Back in the 1990s, this left voters no option but to vote for the “none of the above” option made available after a legal battle.

As this table suggests, however, even under this referendum’s convoluted and tendentious scheme, statehood is still unable to garner more than 50% support when properly matched against the current status.

In fact, statehood is still stuck around the same 47 percent support it received in two 1990s referendums, also set up by pro–statehood PNP administrations.

But what if we look only at Question #2 and recalculate the numbers by comparing votes for Statehood vs. all the other votes AND also the blank ballots?

This comparison is justified as follows: not only should we count as against Statehood the votes for Independence and the so-called “Sovereign Commonwealth,” but we should also count Question #2 blank ballots, which appear to have been deposited blank as a protest for now providing at least the option of voting for the current “Free Associated State” (ELA) status.

As you can see above, looking at the results this way shows that a majority of voters actually reject the idea of making Puerto Rico the 51st state of the United States.

The “Challenged” Ballots Issue

This table revises the one I posted on Facebook by adding the data for ballots reported as challenged (“protestadas”), presumably by at least one of the election officials in a voting location (these are usually classrooms in local schools).

It is important to point out that these officials are volunteers representing the officially–registered local political parties, especially the two leading ones, the pro–statehood PNP and the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, PPD), which supports the current ELA status (‘Free Associated State”).

The other, far smaller parties represent, broadly–speaking, what could be considered the “left” in Puerto Rican politics, but are too small to be able to have election representatives in all voting locations. These are the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP, Puerto Rican Independence Party, the historic center–left pro–independence party since the late 1940s), and the newer Movimiento Unión Soberanista (MUS, roughly translated as “United Movement for Puerto Rican Sovereignty”), and the Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (PPT, “Working People’s Party). Both the MUS and the PPT are groups formed in the past three years or so.

Regarding these “challenged” ballots we need to ask:

(1) Why were these ballots “protested” or “challenged” by election officials representing the political parties, most likely by representatives of the pro–statehood PNP or the pro–ELA PPD?

(2) Which political party challenged more of these ballots?

Some reports from the island suggest that at least some pro–ELA and pro–independence activists called for depositing ballots that expressed views, perhaps in the form of write–ins, that were not included in the options imposed by the pro–statehood government. If this is true, then in all likelihood these ballots were not counted following challenges by pro–statehood PNP officials.

Final Thoughts (for now)

Let’s not forget a basic element of this complex story: the pro–statehood PNP administration was the main force behind this referendum, which local commentators have described as mainly a strategy to attract a higher voter turn out for the general elections (the key electoral contest) by pro–statehood supporters given the unpopularity of the PNP administration led by (Republican) Governor Luis Fortuño since January 2009.

In essence, this was a non–binding “creole” referendum cooked in ways that tilted the process to generate precisely the news headline that is now spreading across the world, the notion that for the first time a majority, indeed a large majority, of voters in Puerto Rico support the idea of becoming a state of the US.

However, as the table suggests, not even the numbers produced by this “cooked” referendum seem to support that once we go deeper than the simple “61% for statehood” data point reported mainly by largely uninformed or misinformed media outlets.

I hope to post more commentary on this referendum, as well as on the results of the Puerto Rico general elections, in the coming weeks.

Many thanks to Martiza Stanchich (Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras) for encouraging me to post this table outside Facebook. Prof. Stanchich has just published an article in The Huffington Post, titled “Puerto Rico Divided on Statehood, Majority Demands Decolonization,” that provides an excellent analysis of the referendum. I strongly encourage you to read it.

Source of Referendum Results: Comisión Estatal de Elecciones, “Condición Política Territorial Actual” and “Opciones No Territoriales.” Last accessed on November 9, 2012.