The White House was aware that Puerto Rican statehood advocates were put off by a top spokesman's statement this week that cast doubt on whether residents want the U.S. territory to become the 51st state, according to the island's representative in Congress Pedro Pierluisi.
Pierluisi, a non-voting member of Congress who aligns with Puerto Rico's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, defended the validity of the Election Day ballot referendum, in which 54 percent of voters said they want to change the island's status and 61 percent supported statehood in a separate question. He maintained that the White House was right to go back on its original claim that the plebiscite result was unclear.
"They knew we were not pleased with that statement," Pierluisi, a Democrat who endorsed President Barack Obama, said in an interview with Univision. "I'm glad that it was clarified because the results speak for themselves. The majority of voters in Puerto Rico requested a change of status and a majority of the voters in Puerto Rico chose statehood as the best option among the three options we have other than the current territorial status."
Pierluisi's comments are one of many from pro-statehood figures directed at the White House after press secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether President Obama would push for statehood in his second term. "I think the outcome was a little less clear than that because of the process itself," Carney said of the status referendum during his Monday news briefing.
Those comments were followed by a "clarification" less than a day later from the White House that called the referendum a clear endorsement of statehood.
"To clarify, the results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and majority chose statehood in the second question," said spokesman Luis Miranda. "Now it is time for Congress to act and the administration will work with them on that effort, so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future."
While the referendum on the surface appears to be a clear expression in favor of statehood, doubt has been cast on whether that is actually the case. More than 466,000 people who voted on the first question, which asked voters if they are satisfied with the island's current territorial status, did not vote on the second question, which asked what status voters prefer (statehood, independence, or free association, which would provide more autonomy from the U.S.)
Pierluisi acknowledged the hundreds of thousands of blank ballots and said that they can be interpreted in many ways, but in the end, statehood prevailed.
"Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is this: more voters chose statehood than even the current status. It's the first time in our history that there were more people in Puerto Rico choosing statehood than the territorial status we call the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And that's telling," he said.
Pierluisi is correct that statehood received more raw votes than keeping the island's territorial status the same, albeit by a thin 7,217-vote margin out of 1.8 million ballots cast. The President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status recommended last year that President Obama and Congress support "any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If the process produces a clear result, Congress should act on it quickly with the President's support."
Pierluisi said that standard has been met.
Still, Congress' approval is needed if Puerto Rico is to become the 51st state, and it remains unclear whether lawmakers will take up the issue. The resident commissioner said he would work to convince members of Congress to advance the ball on Puerto Rican statehood by offering voters on the island "one or more status options."
"It's important that Congress do so because Congress has never consulted the people of Puerto Rico and it's about time that it does," he said. "It's important as well that I get bipartisan support for this legislation, and that's what I'll be working on."