Thursday, October 29, 2020

Puerto Rico: 52nd State of the US? (2020 Referendum - Updated with Results)

In 2012, we reported on Puerto Rico's chances at becoming the a state of the US, after the territory's people sort of voted for that. This is an updated and expanded version of that article, fully revised for next week's new Puerto Rico statehood referendum. 

Continue reading to learn why this time might be different, and why Puerto Rico could become the 52nd state of the US instead of the 51st!

For updates on the results of the referendum, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Puerto Rico Statehood Vote: Different This Time

The US territory of Puerto Rico. (Public domain map from CIA World Factbook)

The US territory of Puerto Rico, made up of one large island and several smaller ones in the Caribbean, doesn't have any say in next week's US presidential election. 

But its people will still have something important to vote on next Tuesday: a referendum on whether to fully join the US as one of the country's states. 

Like in previous votes, the result is non-binding: It can only take effect if approved by the US government. But that doesn't mean it's just a symbolic move.

In previous referendums, voters were given multiple options, and even in 2012, when statehood technically came out on top, the ballot's complicated two-part question made it unclear whether that was really what the majority of voters wanted. (Statehood also technically won a 2017 vote, but only after several anti-statehood political parties led a boycott based on the ballot's wording.)

Now, for the first time, Puerto Ricans will be responding with a simple YES or NO to statehood, giving them the chance to signal once and for all if that's really what they want.


Why would Puerto Rico want to become a state?

Puerto Rico's status leaves it disadvantaged compared to the 50 states that exist today. It has its own constitution and government, but only because the US government allows it to. And despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and many federal taxes and other laws apply to them, the territory has no vote in the US legislature and no say in the main presidential elections. Becoming a state would mean Puerto Rico residents getting the full rights and representation that's already guaranteed to most other US citizens. 

For answers to all your questions about Puerto Rico's current status, check out our updated What is Puerto Rico? explainer article.


Puerto Rico: 51st State, or 52nd State?

It's common in the US to talk about any new potential state as the "51st state" - added to the exactly 50 states that exist now - and Puerto Rico is no exception. But there's a big reason why Puerto Rico, if it does become a state in the near future, might not actually be number 51: The USA's District of Columbia (DC) capital zone, home to capital city Washington, DC, also has a good chance of becoming a state in the coming years. 

Flag of the United States with two new stars added (total of 52 stars) for the hypothetical new states of Puerto Rico and DC (District of Columbia/Washington, DC)
A possible 52-star US flag, adding two stars for Puerto Rico and DC to the 50 it has now. The number of stars on the flag traditionally represents the current number of states (public domain; source).
That's because DC statehood has support from a similar range of from US politicians, and DC's residents already voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood in 2016, with 86% of voters supporting it. On the other hand, Puerto Rico's more mixed politics and ties to both major US political parties could give it an edge in the political process of becoming a state - if residents do clearly choose YES in next week's referendum. 

DC and Puerto Rico's statehood pushes are increasingly being discussed as two things that go hand-in-hand - especially by the US Democratic Party, which expects to gain seats in the national legislature if they're admitted. If the Democrats do gain the presidency and a majority in both legislative chambers after the nationwide elections of November 3 - thought to be the most likely outcome - then there's a distinct possibility that DC and Puerto Rico could become states at the same time. 

Neither is guaranteed entry - there are major obstacles remaining even in case of a Democratic victory - but the point is, it's still up in the air whether even a successful Puerto Rican statehood campaign would convert the territory into the 51st state of the US or the 52nd.

What about Puerto Rican independence?

Historically, many of the world's overseas territories have chosen to become independent countries rather than integrate into the country that controls them. So you might ask, why not an independent Republic of Puerto Rico?

Well, Puerto Ricans were able choose independence in several previous referendums, but the option has always performed dismally, never getting more than a few percent of the vote. That's said to be because locals are taught from a young age that independence wouldn't be feasible. Of course, there are many independent island countries in the Caribbean, most of them smaller and no more resource-wealthy than Puerto Rico, so that argument seems like a bit of an exaggeration. 

But it might (or might not) be true that, without its extensive integration into the US economy and support from the US government, it could be a challenge for an independent Puerto Rico to maintain the standard of living its people have now.

How would Puerto Rico compare to other states?

By land area, a State of Puerto Rico would rank 49th in size, only surpassing Delaware, Rhode Island, and the possible DC state. In terms of population, Puerto Rico's 3.2 million people would make it a relatively small state of the US, roughly number 31 out of 51, between Iowa and Utah (and with less than one tenth the population of the largest state, California). 

Those states each have 4 of the 435 votes in the population-based US House of Representatives (the lower house of the country's legislature), so Puerto Rico would probably get the same. Every state gets two votes in the US Senate (the upper house), out of what would be a total of 102 seats with Puerto Rico (or 104, if DC joins too). And in the US Electoral College, which chooses the country's president based on which candidates win state elections, each state gets a number of votes equal to its total count of legislators, so Puerto Rico would control 6 out of the roughly 540 electors.

Economically, Puerto Rico would be one of the weaker states, at least at first. Based on 2019 numbers, it would rank 38th out of 51 in GDP (a measure of total economic size), and dead last in GDP per capita (the average economic output by person). It also has a much higher poverty rate than any of the 50 states, and its government is deep in debt. But it's hard to say how that might change after its status upgrade.

Despite its small size, Puerto Rico would stand out for its cultural, historical, and geographical uniqueness. It would be the only state with a Spanish-speaking majority, the state with the oldest history of European settlement - the main island was visited by Christopher Columbus himself - and both the easternmost and the southernmost state of the US (unless you count Alaska, whose islands stretch into what's technically the Easteren Hemisphere). Puerto Rico would also be the second farthest-flung of the US states - only Hawaii is more distant from its nearest neighbor state.

Map of the full extent of the United States proper, and Puerto Rico's location and size relative to it.
Map of the whole US plus Puerto Rico (red). Puerto Rico would be the southernmost and the easternmost state, and the third or fourth smallest. Map by Vrysxy (source; CC BY-SA)

How can a territory like Puerto Rico become a state?

The US Constitution only specifies that new states can't take territory from existing states without their permission, so the procedure for creating a new state from a territory is mostly based on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That law set up the first organized American territory, in what's now the Midwest, and defined the process for admitting new states:

To qualify for statehood, an area has to have a population of at least 60,000 (no problem for Puerto Rico - there are over six times that many people just in the capital city). Then the US legislature needs to pass an "enabling act" to get the ball rolling by authorizing the territory to draft a state constitution. Once it's ready, the state is admitted through a majority vote in Congress and the President's signature, just like any other law. 

That's all. Unlike changes to the US constitution, no direct approval from the governments of the other states is required.

Flag of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a US territory Territory Name:  
• Puerto Rico (English, Spanish)
Official Name:  
• Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (English)
• Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Spanish)
Capital: San Juan
Will Puerto Rico become a state if the people vote YES?

If Puerto Ricans do clearly choose statehood in the upcoming referendum, the territory probably has the best chance it's ever had to actually become a state. But that's no guarantee it will really happen. In theory, the US government is obligated to let territories like Puerto Rico eventually become either a state of the US or an independent country. But in practice, admitting new states has historically come down to partisan politics.

The US Senate and the Electoral College (which chooses the president) have been split close to 50-50 between the Republican and Democratic parties for decades. Because of that, adding a new state that might tip the balance permanently towards one of the two parties is a sensitive undertaking. 

Overall, it's widely-assumed that a state of Puerto Rico would support the Democrats over the Republicans, though Puerto Rico experts question this (many Puerto Rican supporters of statehood are Republicans, and think the state could actually go either way).

Still, its chances of being approved as a state by the US legislature seem slim as long as Republicans control the Senate and the presidency, as they do now. But all that could easily change after the upcoming national elections - held the same day as Puerto Rico's referendum. Though it's too close to call at this point, it's thought that the elections are likely to put a Democrat in the presidency while also gaining the Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate (the House of Representatives is already majority-Democrat, and expected to stay that way).

Then it would be up to individual legislators: Puerto Rican statehood could probably win over the House of Representatives and get the endorsement of the Democratic president. But it's not so certain that enough Democrats would vote for it in the Senate. On top of that, current Senate rules could allow a Republican minority to block the vote from happening at all. On the other hand, there have long been proposals to scrap those rules, plus a few Republican senators probably would vote in favor of statehood anyway. So it's hard to say what would happen in the end.


Puerto Rico Statehood in 2021? When would it happen?

So when would Puerto Rico become a state, if it happens? Next year is possible, but it might be too much of a rush, with everything else the new legislature will have on its plate. If Democrats do take the presidency and the Senate, and legislators do make it a priority, they might push to finish their part of the process before the end of 2022, when Republicans get a chance to take control of the Senate back again. 

So it seems likely that the actual date of Puerto Rico becoming a state - if its people vote for that, and if the US government approves it - would be sometime in 2022 or 2023. And if it doesn't work out this time, there's nothing stopping anyone from trying again farther in the future.

Update: As of 3:30am Wednesday Puerto Rico time, the YES to statehood option was leading the NO option 52% to 48%, with 94% of polling places having reported their results. The remaining votes to be counted are probably technically enough to reverse the result, but they would have to skew very heavily towards NO votes. It seems much more likely that the referendum has passed, though voter turnout is only being reported as 50% of registered voters. However, the chances for a statehood-friendly US government are looking less hopeful than before, with Democrats struggling to achieve a majority in the Senate, and the presidential race still too close to call.

Update 2: As of November 10, Puerto Rico's vote count is reportedly complete, with the results holding at 52% in favor of statehood and 48% against. Democrat Joe Biden is the now the apparent winner of the US presidential election (not yet fully confirmed), but control of the US Senate will likely depend on two state runoff elections in early January - so Puerto Rico's chances of actually becoming a state soon may be hanging by a thread.

Update 3: After the January runoffs, the Democratic party has secured the narrowest possible majority in the US Senate, and Democrat Joe Biden has been officially sworn in as the country's president. Puerto Rico itself has also sworn in a new pro-statehood governor. There's still no guarantee that enough US legislators would support statehood for Puerto Rico, since not every Democrat would necessarily vote in favor, and there's some debate over whether 50% of the vote would even be enough to avoid the bill being blocked by opponents under current Senate rules. For that matter, there's no guarantee that the Senate or House leadership will even prioritize the issue enough for it to come to a vote. But for proponents of statehood, there's now reason to be hopeful again.

Learn More: Puerto Rico isn't a state yet, so what is it then?