SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Puerto Ricans faced a fundamental question on Election Day: Should they change their ties with the United States?
Citizens in the U.S. island territory cannot vote in the U.S. presidential election, but many were excited to participate in a referendum on whether to push the territory toward statehood, greater autonomy or independence.
Car horns blared and party flags waved after polling stations closed following what election officials said was a high voter turnout. During the day, many voters carried umbrellas against the blistering tropical sun as temperatures neared 90 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius).
The two-part referendum first asked voters if they wanted to change Puerto Rico's 114-year relationship with the United States. A second question gave voters three alternatives if they wanted a change: become a U.S. state, gain independence, or have a "sovereign free association," a designation that would give more autonomy for the territory of 4 million people.
With 243 of 1,643 precincts reporting late Tuesday, 75,188 voters, or 53 percent, said they did not want to continue under the current political status. Forty-seven percent, or 67,304 voters, supported the status quo.
On the second question, 65 percent favored statehood, followed by 31 percent for sovereign free association and 4 percent for independence.
"Puerto Rico has to be a state. There is no other option," said 25-year-old Jerome Lefebre, who picked up his grandfather before driving to the polls. "We're doing OK, but we could do better. We would receive more benefits, a lot more financial help."
But 42-year-old Ramon Lopez de Azua said he favored the current system, which grants U.S. citizenship but prevents Puerto Ricans from voting for president unless they live in the United States, and gives those on the island only limited representation in Congress.
"Puerto Rico's problem is not its political status," he said. "I think that the United States is the best country in the world, but I am Puerto Rican first."
Both President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney said they supported the referendum, with Obama pledging to respect the will of the people if there was a clear majority. Any change would require approval by the U.S. Congress.
Puerto Rico held non-binding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, with statehood never garnering a clear majority and independence never obtaining more than 5 percent of the vote.
The island also was electing legislators and a governor, with Gov. Luis Fortuno of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party seeking a second term. Fortuno, a Republican, was challenged by Alejandro Garcia Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party favors the status quo. With 817 of 1,643 precincts reporting late Tuesday, Garcia had 427,604 votes, or 48 percent, while Fortuno had 422,506 votes, or 47 percent.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.