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November 21, 2012

Puerto Rico Votes, Everyone Fails at Statistics

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:48 PM

The election results in Puerto Rico were very interesting since a monumental question was asked at the ballot: whether to attempt to change the official relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Currently, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States (or a territory appurtenant if you like big words used by the Supreme Court). Being in this sort of relationship is kind of like dating someone without telling your friends about it. Puerto Rico and the United States are seeing each other, but it’s not official because they didn’t put it on Facebook yet.

That’s the background, but not the interesting part. When Puerto Rico asked its citizens to vote on a non-binding referendum, they chose a format that makes finding results difficult. Let’s start with the questions (dual language referendum pdf here:

1. Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status? (Yes or No)

2. Regardless of your selection in the first question, please mark which of the following non-territorial options you would prefer. (only vote for one – Statehood, Independence, Sovereign Free Associated State)

I think most of these options are fairly easy to understand except the last one – Sovereign Free Associated State would mean that Puerto Rico would continue to have some sort of territorial or associated agreement with the United States, but that they’d start from scratch and work out a new agreement. It is similar to the current status, but would allow Puerto Rico to theoretically retain more autonomy. I would like to put aside the issues of this being a non-binding referendum and ignore the issue of what the United States federal government might think of all of this.

The first question starts out fine. It seems to be a simple yes or no, I can get behind that. However, one could vote No and have ideas for the future of the territory diametrically opposed to another voter also voting No. How? Well, if you vote Yes, it is clear that you would like Puerto Rico to continue to be a territory, and that’s that. If you vote No, you might be voting No to say, “no, get us out of this U.S. protectorate stuff, I want independence!” (or what I will call the Freedom vote). Voting no could also mean, “no, let’s get this party started, I want statehood!” (the Franchise vote – representation and the ability to vote in Presidential elections). So far, if the Yes vote wins, it is clear that the majority of the people would like to continue to have a territory. But if the No vote wins, we’re not sure what the public wants.

So of course the No vote won.

Now it gets pretty complicated. I’m going to use all statistics from the State Elections Commission of Puerto Rico and not bother citing anything. I’m also going to round percentages to make it easier to deal with the math (not for my sake, I love math, this is for your sake). Given those two statements, if you want to check my math, rounding, or elections results, go here, but it’s in Spanish:

There were 1,776k votes (a pleasant coincidence when discussing liberty and secession), and of those 54% voted No and 46% voted Yes to the first question. Of those, a whopping 26% left the next question blank and 1% of the ballots were invalid. Since none of those votes count as anything for the second question, I’m grouping them together as 27% Abstain. Those who did vote on the second question came out as 45% for Statehood, 24% for Sovereign Free Associated State (Associate), and 4% for Independence. I think this is easier to express as individual votes instead of percentages and I will present the numbers in the thousands. For instance, 959,136 people voted No to the first question, which I will represent as 960. The results are as follows:


Yes = 817, No = 960

Statehood = 824, Associate = 450, Independence = 45, Abstain = 500

You will notice that more people abstained than voted for Association or Independence. To further complicate matters, the Governor-elect of Puerto Rico stated in his official results summary letter to President Obama that Abstain votes were votes for the “continuation of the present form of territorial status” (see: This means that the Governor-elect assumes that every Abstain vote was counted in the Yes votes already. Since 500 abstained, that means, according to the Governor-elect at least, that only 317 people who voted Yes then went on to vote on the second question. This is absurd assumption flying in the face of statistics number one (AAFFS1). If the vast majority of those voting Yes chose Abstain on the second question, why did the other 317 bother? Can you assume that no one who voted No was incompetent and failed to vote on the second question? The second question specifically says to disregard your answer to question 1! I can rattle off reasons why someone who voted No abstained on question two – voter was conflicted on question 2 but clear on question 1, voter was not happy with any answers on question 2 (maybe he or she wanted a constitutional monarchy or instituted socialism or the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders to run the government), voter forgot to vote on question 2, voter was confused and thought that by voting No, he or she automatically picked Statehood, or Independence, or voter was afraid of the government knowing he or she wanted Independence or Statehood, or voter didn’t want to lie to his wife who strongly supported Statehood but he secretly preferred Association. There are also many reasons that a Yes voter would vote on the second question. If the Yes vote lost, what then? That Yes voter would want to pick the next best option (I assume that is why they bothered to ask the first question anyway). So it is a fallacy to assume that all Abstain votes also voted Yes.

The next problem is assuming that there is a spectrum here and that voters are rationally voting along the spectrum. It seems logical to group Association, Yes, and Statehood votes together to suggest that Independence is not preferred. However, that’s not necessarily correct and brings us to AAFFS2. The assumption is that those who voted Yes (Territory) or Association or Statehood would all prefer any of those to Independence. This assumption is how someone can throw away the idea that Puerto Ricans might prefer independence to another choice. Imagine if the question were structured as this: Territory or Independence? or Association or Independence? or Statehood or Independence? The ideas behind complete incorporation in the United States as a State or continued associated status are not always congruent. Association may allow for a significant autonomy, similar to Independence. Territorial status also allows for a degree of autonomy related to taxes, most significantly. Under this idea, you could group all votes for Yes, Associate, or Independence together and discount some portion of Statehood votes to No voters, all of a sudden it looks like the majority of Puerto Ricans would prefer not to be a State. It is truly impossible to group any of these voters together. Of course it would be a fallacy to say that Puerto Ricans favored not becoming a State, but that would result in less flashy headlines, so I haven’t seen that yet in the media. As I said earlier, if the majority voted Yes to question 1, I would be satisfied that the majority of Puerto Ricans wanted to keep the status quo, end of debate. But the No vote carried, and further inspection is necessary.

At this point I would like to say how they could have structured this issue – one question (with one subquestion on one answer), separated into many different subparts. Assuming they wanted to offer the same five choices (Independence, Statehood, Territory, Association, Abstain), they could do it and obtain the desired results with this phrasing:

What relationship would you like between Puerto Rico and the United States:
Statehood, Independence, or Territory (status quo)/Association.

If you selected Territory (status quo)/Association, would you prefer the status quo, or a new negotiated Association?

This phrasing would allow a clear answer to the three real choices in this decision and you could really see what people prefer. It still suffers from the plurality issue (the best way would be to ask each possibility against the other and then tally the results – Statehood or Independence? Territory or Independence? Statehood or Territory?).

The Territory/Association issue is AAFFS3. This is a false flag question and I believe it does nothing but confuse the issue. If they had limited question 2 to only those that voted No and only asked, do you want Statehood or Independence, and then Statehood took more votes than those voting Yes in question 1, you could say the majority of Puerto Ricans wanted Statehood (the same could be said about Independence). But the Association is so close to the Territory, it is possible that people voted No so that they could vote for the Association but that if that option was removed, they would vote for the Territory.

This problem could not be solved by limiting question 2 to just those that voted No for the same reasons stated above for why people could vote No or Yes. It probably would be worse, in fact because then you would have no information about those who did vote Yes. The issue here is that they didn’t keep track (or perhaps they simply failed to report) how the second question breaks down with the association of the first question. If it truly was that everyone who voted Statehood also voted No, then more Puerto Ricans would have voted Statehood than Territory and you would have a “majority”. I put that in quotes because you don’t actually have a majority either way. Only 46% of those voting on the first question voted for Statehood on the second question. You can manipulate that all you want, it is not a majority. If you are ok with deciding these major nation-wide issues on plurality, then you have more of an argument, but it is still limited.

If you read this far, congratulations, now you get to see the links to how messed up the media’s reporting is:

Fox News: – reporting that 65% voted for Statehood which is just a complete fabrication.

Cnn: – with a headline that says “Puerto Ricans favor statehood for first time” which is a total lie.

Huffington Post – also, please don’t click this link, the video auto-plays and that’s irritating on a scale of Snookie discussing politics with a Kardashian:

Another Fox News: – it’s right there in the URL which is an incorrect statement.

Really you could use any of the following headlines you want and support it with statistics from this vote. “Puerto Ricans favor status quo”, “Puerto Ricans want an Association or Territory”, “Puerto Ricans still holding out hope for Independence”, “Puerto Ricans are undecided on future”, “Puerto Ricans denounce United States government”. It’s rather silly.
I think I have spent enough time dissecting this issue but if you would like more, please leave a comment. My summary would be that Puerto Rico held an important vote and decided nothing. The only thing that is clear is that Puerto Ricans marginally favor some sort of change and their government let them down. And don’t believe the media or the government when they are attempting to interpret data and use statistics, always look at the source yourself.

I should say they probably favor change – some people might have voted No knowing that they could vote on question two but would otherwise have voted Yes, and misunderstanding that they could vote Yes and still vote on question two.

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