Monday, November 2, 2020

3 Election Day Referendums that Could Change US Geography (Updated with Results)

Update: All three referendums passed, and as of January 2021 the results of two have gone into effect. Scroll down to the bottom of each section for details of what happened.

Map of the United States, showing the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC)
The US has 50 states...for now. (Map from Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA)

US Voters to Decide in Geography-related Referendums

This Tuesday - November 3, 2020 - is election day in the United States. And while presidential rivals Donald Trump and Joe Biden have dominated the news, Americans will also be voting (or have already voted) in thousands of other elections for national, state, and local politicians, plus referendums on state and local issues.

The US has no process for nationwide referendums, but statewide referendums - often known as "ballot measures", "propositions", or just "questions" - are common. They also exist at many lower levels of government, and in territories that aren't part of any state, like the national capital district and overseas dependencies. This Tuesday, there will be 120 statewide referendums, all held within 32 of the country's 50 states, plus 3 referendums at the top level of government for other territories.

While most of these votes are on issues like taxation, election rules, and drug laws, three are of special interest to geography fans:

1. Mississippi's Flag Vote

Former flag of the US state of Mississippi, retired in June 2020, controversial for containing the battle emblem of the pro-slavery Confederate States of America, a 19th Century separatist rebellion.
Former flag of Mississippi state, officially retired in June 2020

As PolGeoNow reported earlier this year, the state of Mississippi is currently the only state without its own flag. Its former flag, controversial for incorporating the battle emblem of 19th Century pro-slavery separatists, was withdrawn by the state legislature earlier this year. 

The law abolishing it specified that a new flag proposal would be drawn up in time for voters to approve or reject in November - and in a compromise with traditionalists, required that the new design include the words "In God We Trust", the official motto of the United States since early in the Cold War.

By August, a state commission had chosen five finalist designs from among public submissions, and by December it had picked a winner, crowning a design titled "The New Magnolia" as the official "In God We Trust Flag" candidate. The design features variations of the red and blue colors from the US flag, plus two gold stripes for the state's "rich cultural history", centered around a magnolia flower, the official state flower of Mississippi. 

The choice is a reference to the original "Magnolia Flag" - actually a series of related flag designs - used by Mississippi in the 1800s. The new design surrounds the magnolia flower with twenty white stars, for the number of states in the US when Mississippi joined, plus a golden star-like symbol drawn from traditional art of the Choctaw people to represent the region's original inhabitants.

Official proposed new flag of the US state of Mississippi, formerly titled the New Magnolia Flag and now designated the In God We Trust Flag. Voters will choose whether to approve or reject it in a referendum on November 3, 2020.
Mississippians are now voting on whether to approve or reject this new state flag.
On Tuesday, Mississippians will have a simple choice of YES or NO on the flag design. If they approve it, the flag won't become official immediately, but the state legislature will be obligated to write it into law during its next session. If the voters reject the new design, the state will go at least one more year without a flag: The flag commission will have to go back to the drawing board, and present a new candidate for a second referendum in November 2021.

However, a recent voter opinion poll found that the referendum is likely to pass, with 61% of respondents saying they either plan to vote in favor or already have (elderly and absent voters are allowed to vote early by mail). The poll showed especially high support among Black voters and supporters of the Democratic Party, both at 89%, while White voters were almost evenly divided. Among Republican Party supporters, only 41% approved of the new design, while unaffiliated voters were more enthusiastic, at 64%.

Update: As of 1am Wednesday in Mississippi, 92% of the state's election precincts have reported their results, and of the vote reported, 72% are in favor of changing the flag vs. 28% against. This lead - significantly bigger than predicted by the one opinion poll - appears much too large for the remaining votes to overcome, even if they were all votes against. Accordingly, at least one major US news network has concluded that the YES has won the day. But results won't be officially finalized until after November 10, so the flag hasn't been adopted just yet.

Update 2: Though Mississippi can't finalize its count of ballots until November 13, though numbers are thought to be nearly complete, with results standing at 71% in favor of the flag change and 29% against. Some officials have already raised the new flag, but it won't be official until the state legislature formally adopts it.

Update 3: Though Mississippi had set a deadline of November 13 to certify the election and referendum results, 15 of the state's 82 counties missed the deadline, and 12 of those still hadn't certified their local results by the morning of November 16. The main reason for the delay was said to be recent changes in rules for the handling of absentee ballots, though delays in three counties are attributed to county officials contracting COVID-19. We presume that the state legislature won't move forward with formally adopting the new flag until sometime after all the results are certified.

Update 4: Mississippi's government officially adopted the new flag on Jan. 11, 2021, after the results were certified and a bill was passed by the state legislature. See our article on Mississippi's official new flag for more details.

2. Rhode Island's Name Change Vote

Map of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, from the United States National Atlas
State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The island hosting Newport (center right) is the original "Rhode Island", while "Providence Plantations" referred to the mainland area around Providence (top right). Public domain map (source).

Even many Americans don't realize that Rhode Island, the smallest US state by area, actually has a longer official name: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. 

But now, the state is voting on whether to amend the state constitution, shortening the name to just "State of Rhode Island". If the referendum passes, it would apparently be the first time ever that any US state has changed its name.

Ironically, most of the state is not on an island at all, and the original island the name referred to is now called by a different name. The "Providence Plantations" referred to part of the state's larger mainland area, with the word "plantation" then meaning an agricultural colony founded as part of the British Empire. But "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" is an inconveniently long name, and it ended up getting shortened in all but the most formal circumstances.

In modern times, the word "plantation" has mostly fallen out of use in the US, except in reference to the historical period when millions of African Americans were bought and sold as property, and forced to work for free on colonial plantations. Though the practice started under British rule, most of them weren't freed until the 1860s - almost a century after the US gained independence from Britain. Rhode Island itself played a massive role in the North American slave trade, and some farmers in the state did have slaves, though the name Providence Plantations didn't originally refer to farms using slave labor.

Map of Rhode Island state's location within the US: A very small state nestled in among the country's far northeast along the Atlantic Coast
Rhode Island is the smallest state of the US
(Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA)

Campaigns to change the state's name have been controversial, with many arguing that it promotes incorrect assumptions about the state's history, and a nearly identical proposal was rejected by 78% of voters in a 2010 referendum. 

This time, the state's governor is supporting the change, and has already ordered the long-form name removed from government-issued documents, on the advice of slave-descended Rhode Islanders who say even the word "plantations" serves as a painful reminder of their history.

The US has seen a massive shift in public opinion about slavery's legacy over the past several months, leading to growing enthusiasm for action against symbols and institutions accused of being racist. So it seems likely that the results of Tuesday's referendum will be very different from the results of 10 years ago. If it does pass, it looks like the name change will go into effect immediately based on the procedures for amending the Rhode Island constitution.

Update: As of 2am Wednesday Rhode Island time, the YES vote was leading the NO by 53% to 47%, with 79% of the state's election precincts reporting their results. The number of remaining votes left to count suggests that a reversal is still possible, with local news media only tentatively suggesting that the referendum may have passed. Voting patterns this year suggest that the YES may be more likely to grow than the NO, but the results won't be officially complete until November 10.

Update 2: The vote count in Rhode Island is now complete, with the name change referendum passing by 53% to 47%, within a percentage point of the partial results reported earlier in the day. However, contrary to a headline in the Boston Globe newspaper, the change has presumably not yet gone into effect. The state's election results site still lists the count as unofficial and awaiting certification (due on November 10).

Update 3: As of the night of November 10, it appears that Rhode Island's results have still not yet been officially certified. And contrary to what we implied before, the state actually has no specific deadline for certifying them, though in theory it's obligated to do it "immediately". Once we confirm that the state name change has gone into effect, we'll publish a separate article about it here on PolGeoNow.

Update 4: Rhode Island's election results are now not expected to be certified until about November 30, since the state is still bogged down in work to verify the correct count after an unusually complex polling situation. Based on our understanding of the referendum law, the name change won't officially take effect until then.

Update 5: Election results were indeed certified on Nov. 30, meaning that Rhode Island has now officially changed its name.

3. Puerto Rico's Vote on Statehood

Map of the US territory of Puerto Rico, made up of one large island and several smaller islands in the Caribbean
The US territory of Puerto Rico is voting on whether to request statehood (public domain map).
The third of these geography-related referendums isn't happening in a US state, but could lead to the creation of a new one. The islands of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, currently a territory belonging to the US but not part of the US proper, are voting in a non-binding referendum on whether they should be made into the 51st (or 52nd) state.

Unlike Mississippi and Rhode Island's votes, the Puerto Rico referendum won't automatically take effect. Far from it: A new state can only be created by consent of the US legislature, which would have to pass a law to create it, which in turn would have to be signed by the US president. 

That's never seemed likely before, even when Puerto Rico passed similar referendums before - but this time might be different. Tuesday's referendum will be the first to get a clear, simple YES or NO answer on whether a majority of Puerto Ricans really want statehood. And depending on how US presidential and legislative elections the same day turn out, there might finally be enough support in the US government to make it happen if they do want it.

For lots more on the referendum, its likely consequences, and how Puerto Rico would compare to the other states, check out PolGeoNow's new Puerto Rico statehood explainer from last week. And for answers to all your questions on Puerto Rico's current status, visit our newly-updated Puerto Rico FAQ!

Update: As of 3am Wednesday Puerto Rico time, Puerto Rico's statehood referendum appears likely to have passed, though the election of a statehood-friendly new US government is looking much less certain. For details, see the update notes at the top of our Puerto Rico Statehood Referendum 2020 article.

Update 2: As of November 10, the vote count in Puerto Rico is now complete, though the composition of the next US government is still unresolved. Again, see our Puerto Rico Statehood article for details.

Update 3: As of January 2021, the more statehood-friendly of the two major US political parties has secured precarious control of both of the country's legislative houses as well as the presidency, while a pro-statehood governor has been sworn in in Puerto Rico. Statehood for Puerto Rico within the next couple years now seems like a real possibility, but there's still no guarantee that enough US legislators would support it (or even that it would be prioritized enough to come to a vote).

Want to keep up on geography changes and referendums? Check back regularly, or follow us on Twitter for even more news throughout the year!