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Puerto Rican voters back statehood in questioned referendum

A plebiscite in the US's oldest and largest colony, Puerto Rico, has returned an overwhelming vote in favour of becoming the 51st state of the union, in a result instantly rejected as meaningless by opposition parties, which had boycotted the event.

And the U.S. Congress has final say in any changes to Puerto Rico's political status.

It's the fifth time Puerto Ricans have voted on the matter, but statehood has never won a clear victory.

Were Puerto Rico to be allowed to join the United States on equal terms, it would be the first to do so since Hawaii became the 50th state in August 1959.

But that didn't stop Gov. Ricardo Rossello from vowing to push ahead with his administration's quest to make the island the 51st USA state and declaring that "Puerto Rico voted for statehood".

Schatz argues that statehood would help Puerto Rico in its attempt to face down its debt crisis.

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But the ballot's previous language prompted calls by opposition parties to boycott what they saw as a rigged vote.

For decades the territory enjoyed a U.S. federal tax exemption that attracted many American companies to set up shop - but those breaks were ended in 2006, prompting firms to leave the island en masse. Chanting "Puerto Rico Not for Sale", people marched in front of their idol, while others called on the U.S. to release of the nation's "political prisoners". It means Puerto Ricans have USA citizenship, but can't vote in presidential elections and have just one congressional representative, who has limited voting powers.

As of 7:00 pm, the island's State Commission on Elections (CEE-PR) had reported that about 500,000 (23 percent) of the island's eligible voters had cast ballots, in contrast to Puerto Rico's historically high turnout in most elections.

Many believe the island's territorial status has contributed to its 10-year economic recession, which has prompted almost half a million Puerto Ricans to flee to the US mainland and was largely sparked by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives. According to a survey conducted in March by the Rasmussen Report, 40 percent of Americans believe Puerto Rico should be a state, up from 35 percent in 2013.

Sunday's referendum is the fifth for Puerto Rico.

It also gets USA military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as official states receive.

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Despite the overwhelming vote to join the U.S., nearly 80% of Puerto Rican voters avoided casting a ballot.

Votes were still being counted and the expected outcome is unlikely to change Puerto Rico's label as a U.S. territory, a move that would require an act of the U.S. Congress.

Rossello, who heads the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said his government would fight "in Washington and throughout the world" for the Caribbean island territory to be accepted as the 51st USA state, and for Puerto Ricans to gain "all the same opportunities" as other American citizens.

Those who remain behind have faced new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the USA mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.

The Caribbean island has been a USA territory since 1898.

His party also has noted that the U.S. Justice Department has not backed the referendum.

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The current territorial status option received 6,821 votes, or 1.32 percent. This is in stark contrast to the last plebiscite held in 2012 - in which 1,363,854 people, or 78.19 percent of registered voters, cast a ballot.



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