(WASHINGTON) — A vote in Puerto Rico over the island’s status as a U.S. territory has triggered a fierce debate over whether a majority voted to become the 51st state.
The island territory has been debating the issue for decades and pro-statehood politicians are celebrating Tuesday’s vote claiming it was the first time in 45 years that Puerto Ricans have voted for statehood.
Others, however, are challenging that conclusion and argue that the vote indicates opposition to statehood.
“Puerto Ricans in general are just dissatisfied with the current government,” Yarimar Bonilla, a Rutgers University assistant professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies, told ABC News. “They voted against the government in place and they voted for change.”
A slim majority of voters in the Caribbean island territory chose statehood in a plebiscite, which is a non-binding referendum in which people express their opinions for or against a proposal.
The ballot included offices including the governor as well as its territory status. It’s not known how many voters skipped the territory question.
The territory question had two parts. The first part asked voters if they favored their current status as a U.S. territory. About 54 percent of voters said no, that they were not happy with the status quo.
From there, everyone could answer a second question that gave three options: statehood, sovereign free association or independence. Sovereign free association is not the same as the current status.
Only about 1.3 million voters answered the second question. Of those, 61 percent chose statehood, 33 percent chose the semi-autonomous choice and six percent chose independence. Nearly 500,000 people left the question blank. The population of Puerto Rico is nearly 4 million people.
It was the first time statehood won a majority of votes in similar referendums in the past 45 years.
“Statehood didn’t win,” Bonilla said. “There was a vote of whether people wanted to change the current status or not and the majority voted for change in current status. However, that wasn’t a win for statehood.”
“If you take into account the number of people who want to continue with the status that they have now and the amount of people who voted for an option other than statehood, then statehood doesn’t have a majority vote,” she said.
Additionally, the people voted to oust Gov. Luis Fortuna, a member of the pro-statehood party, along with other pro-statehood leaders.
“The state party was defeated in the general election,” Edgardo Melendez, a Hunter College professor in the Department of Africana & Puerto Rican/Latino Studies told ABC News. “The statehood governor lost. They lost both chambers of the legislature. This is a general victory for the Popular Democratic party, which supports commonwealth.”
The results of the vote will be sent to Congress and to the White House. It would be up to Congress to initiate a process to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
“Nothing is going to come of this,” Bonilla said. “There’s no consensus. You have a divided population. There’s no way Obama can say that the Puerto Rican people have spoken in a united voice for anything.”
Bonilla said the ballot was designed by the statehood party, not by Congress.
“If you compare what statehood got in this election with previous plebiscites, it’s not such a big difference,” Melendez said. “There is no real growth in the statehood option so we have to be very, very careful in saying this is a victory for statehood because it’s not.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio