Room for a 51st star?
“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.”
— U.S. Constitution,
Article IV, Section 3
“The ball is now in Congress’ court and Congress will have to react to this result.”
— Pedro Pierluisi,
Puerto Rico’s Congressional representative
Not since Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union in 1959 has the United States had to find room for new stars in the field of blue on Old Glory. While several unsuccessful attempts have been made at statehood for the District of Columbia, the next few years should bring some serious discussions about statehood for Puerto Rico following a referendum vote in the territory on Tuesday.
When Alaska and Hawaii joined, they left the United States without any incorporated organized territories. Four unincorporated organized territories remain — Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been governed by a constitution and under that constitution its head of state is the President of the United States. Puerto Ricans elect their own governor, senators and representatives. They have a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress and while they vote in party primaries, they do not vote in U.S. Presidential elections.
On Tuesday, Puerto Ricans had a two-part referendum on their ballot. The first part asked if their current system of governance should be changed. Previous referenda on that issue had been defeated. The second part asked what the change should be if a change was made. The results were noteworthy, but not nearly clear enough to be able to predict what will happen in the coming years.
For the first time ever, a majority of those voting indicated that they wanted to change the existing relationship with the United States. Fifty-four percent of voters gave that response. All voters, regardless of their vote on the first part of the referendum, were then asked what the new relationship should be if it were to change. Sixty-one percent chose statehood as the new option. About half that number chose a more tenuous ‘sovereign free association’ and fewer than 10 percent voted for full independence as a sovereign nation.
The referendum was not quite as clear a statement on statehood as those numbers might make it seem. Nearly half a million people didn’t cast a vote in the second part of the referendum at all. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans ousted their pro-statehood governor by a narrow margin. None the less, President Obama has said that he would support whatever result came from the election and ask Congress to review and act upon the vote result.
Indeed, it is Congress that would have to act under the Provisions of Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. That section empowers Congress to act to approve statehood and requires the consent of any existing state if land is to be take from it to make the new state (as happened with the creation of Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, West Virginia and the entire Western Reserve).
The most recent attempts at statehood have involved the District of Columbia. In a vote not unlike the one this week in Puerto Rico, D.C. residents voted to seek statehood in 1980. In 1982, they adopted a constitution, but the effort stalled there. A proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give D.C. residents full representation in both houses of Congress failed in 1985 (though Ohio supported it). A second effort at statehood was launched in the early 1990s, and in 1993, the issue came to a full vote in the House of Representatives where it was defeated by a vote of 277 to 153.
The political forces at play in that vote remain at play in the discussion of Puerto Rico. In an editorial on Nov. 27, 1993, the Dayton Daily News wrote, “The drive for D.C. statehood is not about voting rights or taxation without representation. It is about power. It is nothing more than an attempt by some in the Democratic Party to grab for themselves another seat in the House and two in the Senate, at the expense of the Constitution.”
Indeed, unlike the balanced effect of the addition of Hawaii and Alaska, adding Puerto Rico as a state will shift the balance of power in Congress in favor of whichever party garners the most votes among Puerto Rico’s citizenry. Whether that fact trumps the polling result in the territory remains to be seen.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.