SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – As voter across the U.S. head to the polls to pick a new president, Puerto Ricans headed to the polls to decide if they should 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 that could push the territory toward statehood, greater autonomy or independence.
Car horns blared and party flags waved as voters headed to polling stations, many carrying umbrellas against the blistering tropical sun as temperatures neared 90 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees centigrade).
The two-part referendum first asks voters if they want to change Puerto Rico's 114-year relationship with the United States. A second question gives voters three alternatives if they do want a change: become the 51st U.S. state, independence, or "sovereign free association," a designation that would give more autonomy for the territory of 4 million people.
"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 López de Azua said he favors 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 have said they supported the referendum, with Obama pledging to respect the will of the people if there is a clear majority. Any change would require approval by the U.S. Congress.
The island also is electing legislators and a governor, with Gov. Luis Fortuño of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party seeking a second term. Fortuño, a Republican, is running against Alejandro Garcia Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party favors the status quo.
Pro-statehooders say Puerto Rico would benefit from becoming a state because it would receive an additional $20 billion a year in federal funds to boost the local economy and combat crime. The island currently has a higher unemployment rate than any U.S. state at 13.6 percent.
A status of sovereign free association would give Puerto Rico more autonomy and allow U.S. jurisdiction only in certain judicial matters. The details of the relationship would have to be agreed upon by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments.
Puerto Rico also 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.
In a recent poll, local newspaper El Nuevo Dia found that a slim majority favored the current political status. On the second question, the preference for statehood topped sovereign free association. Few said they favor independence.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.