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How Can Puerto Rico Become a State?

The United States flag flying in the breeze next to the flag of Puerto Rico
By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

One of this election season's weirdest rallying cries/scare tactics is about how Democrats will quickly move to grant statehood to Puerto Rico in 2021.

All the talking heads discuss Puerto Rican statehood as an either/or proposition. But that leaves out many things that likely need to happen first for statehood to occur.

We'll leave the turgid analysis of the merits of Puerto Rican statehood and which political party this benefits (by stereotyping Puerto Ricans into overly broad categories) to the pundits. Instead, we'll spell out how statehood could actually happen.


Constitutional Guidelines for Statehood

Just like many other big issues that get a lot of talk from activists, the Constitution does not say all that much about statehood. While it does place some limits on creating new states within existing ones (such as breaking up California) or combining two states, when it comes to solely adding new states, Article IV, Section 3 says:

New States may be admitting by the Congress into this union

Reduced to its simplest form, it simply means that Congress can pass a law, which the president signs, admitting a state. But generally, Congress has first allowed a period of territorial government and passed what is known as an "enabling act" first, allowing residents of a territory to write their own constitution for their state. After Congress accepted the new state's constitution, it would then vote on admitting the state to the union.


Puerto Ricans Will Vote Again

President Trump, along with former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, stated support for Puerto Rican statehood if that's what island residents wanted.

But the question of popular consent for statehood on the island is a thorny one. While referendums on statehood in 1967 and 1998 failed, a 2012 referendum showed a clear majority wanted to change the island's current status, but there was no clear majority on statehood vs. independence vs. free association with the U.S.

A 2017 referendum on statehood passed with 97%, but it suffered from a turnout of less than 25% of voters due to boycotts from parties that favor maintaining the status quo.

Now, in November, Puerto Ricans will again head to the polls to vote on a simple yes vs. no question of statehood without other options for independence or free association.

A bill put forward in Congress would admit Puerto Rico as a state depending on the result of November's vote. It currently has 60 cosponsors, but no further action has been taken on it. This means that Puerto Ricans could vote by an overwhelming majority for statehood, but Congress could choose to do nothing about it.


What Statehood Would Mean

Should the island territory become the United States' 51st state (or 52nd - don't forget all the hand-wringing about D.C.!), it would mean Puerto Ricans would:

  • Have two senators and approximately four or five representatives in Congress
  • Be able to vote for president
  • Enjoy better access to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, disaster relief, and other federally funded programs
  • Pay federal taxes
  • Have local control over local government matters

This debate is sure to heat up if Democrats have a strong Election Day. Stay tuned.

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