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Puerto Rico vote endorses statehood with an asterisk

– Puerto Ricans have supported U.S. statehood in a vote that jubilant members of the pro-statehood party say is the strongest sign yet that the Caribbean island territory is on the road to losing its second-class status.

But Tuesday’s vote comes with an asterisk and an imposing political reality: The island remains bitterly divided over its relationship to the United States, and many question the validity of this week’s referendum.

Nearly a half-million voters chose to leave a portion of the ballot blank. And voters also ousted the pro-statehood governor, eliminating one of the main advocates for a cause that would need the approval of the U.S. Congress.

“Statehood won a victory without precedent but it’s an artificial victory,” said Angel Israel Rivera Ortiz, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “It reflects a divided and confused electorate that is not clear on where it’s going.”

President Obama had said he would support the will of the Puerto Rican people on the question of the island’s relationship to the U.S., referred to simply on the island as its “status,” and this week’s referendum was intended to be the barometer.

But the results aren’t so clear cut. It was a two-part ballot that first asked all voters whether they favor the current status as a U.S. territory. Regardless of the answer, all voters then had the opportunity to choose in the second question from three options: statehood, independence or “sovereign free association,” which would grant more autonomy to the island of nearly 4 million people.

More than 900,000 voters, or 54 percent, responded “no” to the first question, saying they were not content with the current status.

On the second question, about 1.3 million voters made a choice. Of those, nearly 800,000, or 61 percent of those expressing an opinion, chose statehood – the first majority after three previous referendums on the issue over the past 45 years. About 437,000 backed sovereign free association and 72,560 chose independence. Nearly 500,000, however, left that question blank.

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