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Puerto Rico votes to become 51st U.S. state

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico's governor says the U.S. territory has overwhelmingly chosen statehood in a non-binding referendum.

Ricardo Rossello said Sunday that the island has sent a strong and clear message to U.S. Congress and the world.

Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, more than 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for the current territorial status. The participation rate was nearly 23 percent with roughly 2.26 million registered voters.

"From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico," Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, announcing the victory. "It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico."

U.S. Congress has final say on any changes to the U.S. territory's political status, regardless of the referendum's final outcome.

Many have questioned the validity of the vote amid a low turnout and a boycott by several opposition parties.

It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, according to Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum in 2012.

"Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic about this plebiscite as they were five years ago," he said.

Puerto Rico's main opposition party rejected the pro-statehood result.

"The scant participation ... sends a clear message," said Anibal Jose Torres, a party member. "The people rejected it by boycotting an inconsequential event."

Rossello, however, vowed to push ahead with his administration's quest for statehood, which was his top campaign promise. He said he would create a commission to ensure that Congress validate the referendum's results.

"In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral processes always prevails," he said. "Puerto Rico voted for statehood."

The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.