SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Puerto Ricans got the chance Sunday to tell the U.S. Congress which political status they want for a U.S. territory mired in an economic crisis that has triggered an exodus of islanders to the mainland.
Congress has final say over whether to approve the outcome of the referendum that offers voters three choices: statehood, free association/independence or the current territorial status.
Statehood supporters were expected to dominate the vote because three parties that favor other options were boycotting, including the island's main opposition party.
Among those hoping Puerto Rico will become the 51st state is Ana Maria Garcia, a 52-year-old business administrator who arrived with her family on bicycle to vote early Sunday.
"Puerto Rico would benefit greatly from being a state right now given the crisis," she said. "It would offer stability."
Many believe the island's territorial status has contributed to its 10-year economic recession, which was largely sparked by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.
Puerto Rico is exempt from the U.S. federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than U.S. states.
The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
"I believe in the principle of equality," said Moraima Mendez, an attorney who studied in Indiana and voted for statehood. "I want to stand eye-to-eye with the U.S. .... I want everyone here to have everything I had over there."
Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have moved to the U.S. mainland in the past decade to find a more affordable cost of living or jobs as the island of 3.4 million people struggles with a 12 percent unemployment rate.
Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the U.S. mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.
Those who oppose statehood worry the island will lose its cultural identity and warn that Puerto Rico will struggle even more financially because it will be forced to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes.
"The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating," Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told The Associated Press. "Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be cancelled by the amount of taxes the island will have to pay."
His party also has noted that the U.S. Justice Department has not backed the referendum.
A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory's current status as an option. The administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello added it and sent the ballot back for review, but the department said it needed more time and asked that the vote be postponed, which it wasn't.
Sunday's referendum is the fifth for Puerto Rico.
No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums, with voters almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change. Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but nearly half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the results were not legitimate.
Some statehood supporters on Sunday expressed dismay that certain voting centers appeared empty.
"We are worse off than I thought, in the sense that we don't give a damn what happens to this island," said Jose Miranda, a retired TV and radio producer who lived 30 years in the U.S. mainland and is returning because he believes life is better over there.
He also criticized austerity measures including imposing new taxes to help turn around the island's economy.
"That's a pipe dream," he said. "What we need here is a radical change."