SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CNN) — After more than 800,000 Puerto Rican voters said they want the island to become the 51st U.S. state, the White House is calling on lawmakers to take action.
“Congress should now study the results closely, and provide the people of Puerto Rico with a clear path forward that lays out the means by which Puerto Ricans themselves can determine their own status,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters this week.
Last month’s statehood referendum in Puerto Rico was nonbinding, but it was the first time such a measure garnered a majority of votes; 61% of voters who cast ballots on that question said they supported the island commonwealth becoming a U.S. state.
Critics say the two-part plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status was unclear and doesn’t accurately represent the will of the island. Even the White House hasn’t been clear about what the vote means, they say.
“Democracy should never be used to confuse people. … I’m sorry they are confused in the White House,” said Puerto Rican Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the Popular Democratic Party.
The first ballot question asked Puerto Rican voters whether they supported the island’s status as a U.S. commonwealth; 54% of them said no.
In response to the second question, which asked voters to select an alternative, 61% of those who cast ballots chose statehood, but more than 480,000 people abstained from voting on that question.
“They could have voted for statehood, if they had really supported it,” said Maria de Lourdes Santiago, senator-elect for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which supports the island becoming its own sovereign republic. “When you combine all the votes, statehood doesn’t appear as the true winner in the second question about non-colonial options.”
One thing is clear, the White House spokesman said Monday: Puerto Ricans “want a resolution to the issue of the island’s political status.”
Congressional action in Washington would be necessary for Puerto Rico to become a state.
Statehood has long been a thorny issue in Puerto Rico, with political parties sharply divided over the matter.
Those who support statehood say last month’s vote is a sign that change is coming, despite what critics say.
“If they don’t want to pay attention to it, let them not pay attention,” said Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state. “But the White House is paying attention.”
A law passed in 1917 made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. But the Caribbean island’s roughly 4 million residents cannot vote for president
Under its status as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws, though island residents are exempt from some federal taxes. Puerto Rico has a nonvoting representative in Congress.
After last month’s referendum, McClintock said an economic downturn and shrinking population contributed to the support for statehood, where as referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998 failed.
“I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need,” he said.
An exodus of residents from the island has culminated in a staggering statistic: 58% of Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States, McClintock said.
“When you have a political status that scares away half of your population,” he said, “it is time to reject that political status.”
CNN’s Mariano Castillo contributed to this report. Journalist Dania Alexandrino reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet wrote the story in Atlanta.