The island also is electing legislators and a governor, with Gov. Luis Fortuno of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party seeking a second term. Fortuno, a Republican, is running against Alejandro Garcia Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party favors the status quo.
Pro-statehooders say Puerto Rico would benefit from becoming a state because it would receive an additional $20 billion a year in federal funds to boost the local economy and fight crime. The island currently has a higher unemployment rate than any U.S. state at 13.6 percent, and last year it reported a record 1,117 killings.
A status of sovereign free association, meanwhile, would award Puerto Rico more autonomy and allow U.S. jurisdiction only in certain judicial matters. The details of the relationship would have to be agreed upon by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments.
A third choice, outright independence, has received little support in the last couple of decades.At a small university in historic Old San Juan, balloting moved slowly, a line of voters snaking out the door and into a sunbaked plaza. Manolo Nunez Negron, a 31-year-old literature professor, was annoyed at the wait but said he was excited to vote for a change of governor. "Puerto Rico is deciding if it will continue supporting Republican policies that have hurt the middle class and the working class," Nunez said after casting his vote. Nilda Rodriguez, a "40-something" nurse, said she was supporting statehood and Fortuno as governor, mostly because she wants Puerto Rico to be more like the United States, where she believes the government is more efficient and responsive. "We've had the same status all these years and it needs to change," Rodriguez said as she headed off to work, a pink stethoscope slung over her shoulder. "We're going to see if things get better because it has gone from bad to worse."