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Puerto Rico Votes to Become 51st State

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People ride atop a vehicle waving a Puerto Rican flag during elections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. People ride atop a vehicle waving a Puerto Rican flag during elections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Ricardo Arduengo/AP

Story updated Nov. 8 at 5:14 a.m. EST

When President Barack Obama visited the island of Puerto Rico in June 2011, he made it clear that his administration would support the voice of the people with regard to statehood:

"[My administration has] provided a meaningful way forward on this question so that the residents of the island can determine their own future," said Obama.  "And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you."

Last night, Puerto Rican voters made their decision--they would like to become the 51st state in the Union. According to the BBC,

Almost 80% of the island's electorate took part in the referendum, the fourth in the past 45 years.

With almost all the votes counted, almost 54% voted to change the island's relationship with the US.

And in reply to a second question on what future they favored, nearly two-thirds wanted full statehood.

If Congress admits Puerto Rico as the 51st state, the residents of the island would be entitled to all rights of those on the mainland and be obligated to pay federal taxes, from which they are currently exempt.

But before you start shopping for new flags, there are some hurdles in the islands way. First, it remains unclear if Obama would consider the results to the multi-question referendum  a "clear" majority and second, pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuño was defeated by his opponent, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who supports the island's current status.

Regarding the results of the referendum, the Associated Press reports the results aren't so clear cut:

It was a two-part ballot that first asked all voters if 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, only about 1.3 million voters made a choice. Of those, nearly 800,000, Advertisement or 61 percent of those expressing an opinion, chose statehood -- the first majority after three referendums on the issue over the past 45 years. Some 437,000 backed sovereign free association and 72,560 chose independence. Nearly 500,000, however, left that question blank.

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in Washington and the island's non-voting representative in Congress, won re-election with 48 percent of the vote. He said he will present the results to Obama with the hope of moving forward on the question of statehood.

"The ball is now in Congress' court and Congress will have to react to this result," Pierluisi said, according to the Associated Press. "This is a clear result that says 'no' to the current status."

Officially referred to by the Department of the Interior as an "insular area," Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 when Spain ceded the island to the U.S. as part of the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Rico's 4 million residents us the U.S. dollar and travel on U.S. passports. 

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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