It’s been more than 60 years since a new state was admitted into the United States of America, though not for a lack of options. Both Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, and Puerto Rico, a territory of the US, have long been considered candidates to join the Union. Yet, year after year, both remain in limbo.
Statehood brings with it greater representation in the US Congress. For the five US territories, of which Puerto Rico is by far the most populous, becoming a state would also grant the right to vote for president. Public opinion is divided on statehood for Washington and Puerto Rico. Polls show that most US citizens are against it for the nation’s capital but support it for Puerto Rico.
President Donald Trump and the Republican Party appear opposed to adding another state, but if former Vice President Joe Biden were to win in 2020, that could change the political math.
Could Puerto Rico become a state?
With more than three million people, Puerto Rico, a territory of the US since 1898, is larger than more than a third of the current states. By comparison, Hawaii, the last state added to the Union, officially became a US territory in 1900 and had a population of roughly 630,000 when it was admitted in 1959. Today, Hawaii has a population of less than 1.5 million people.
On November 3, 2020, when the country votes for president, citizens of Puerto Rico will instead be voting on the Puerto Rico Statehood Referendum. The nonbinding referendum asks a simple yes or no question: “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?”
However, even if the vote to make Puerto Rico a state passes, as similar votes have many times before, there is nothing compelling Congress to act. Numerous previous statehood referendums have spurred no action in Congress.
In 2016, while running for president, Trump’s campaign expressed support for Puerto Rico statehood. Yet, in 2018, Trump said he was an “absolute no” for statehood. The change in tone came after the Trump administration was heavily criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans and led hundreds of thousands more to leave the island.
Trump has not only reversed course on Puerto Rico’s statehood, he even reportedly considered selling the island territory after it was devastated by the hurricane.
Does Joe Biden support Puerto Rican statehood?
Puerto Rico is unlikely to get any closer to statehood if Trump is reelected in November. However, if he were to lose the election to Biden, that could change the political calculus. Though Biden has not spoken on Puerto Rico’s statehood during this campaign cycle, he has discussed it briefly in the past.
In 2012, while Biden was vice president in the Obama administration, he was asked directly by Phillip Arroyo, then a White House intern, if he supported statehood for Puerto Rico.
Arroyo recalled Biden’s answer, “I must say, that is a very good question. I have always found Puerto Rico’s current political status as something very bizarre. My word of advice to you, and all Puerto Ricans, is that you continue to fight hard until you reach your goal of equality, and we shall act.”
Yet, despite the political pressure that then-Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno put on President Barack Obama and Congress, statehood did not occur, even after Puerto Ricans narrowly voted in support of it.
How much support for statehood is there in Puerto Rico?
On the island, there hasn’t traditionally been overwhelming support for statehood. In fact, Fortuno lost his reelection bid in 2012 to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who opposed statehood as governor.
While advocates for statehood say it would help the commonwealth pull itself out of a deep financial hole, opponents say the other costs make statehood not worth it. Currently, Puerto Ricans don’t pay most federal taxes, yet they still receive federal benefits, including Social Security and Medicare. Many residents believe that the nation would be stronger with greater autonomy.
Though Puerto Ricans cannot vote in November’s presidential election, they do vote in the primaries. In this year’s Democratic presidential primary, held in July after it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the island nation voted for Biden, who had no other opponents left in the race.
Biden’s lack of outspoken support for Puerto Rican statehood could possibly cost him votes in Florida, a valuable swing state where many pro-statehood Puerto Ricans live. With Biden neck-and-neck with Trump in Florida polling, the candidate could conceivably shore up support from the large Latino community there with a campaign promise supporting statehood.
Statehood would also give Puerto Rican residents greater representation in Washington. Puerto Rico currently has one “at-large” representative in the US House of Representatives, Jenniffer González-Colón, who is a Republican. González-Colón is a nonvoting member of the House and Puerto Rico does not have any representation in the Senate.
Could Washington, DC become a state?
While Puerto Rico’s prospects for statehood are uncertain, Washington’s chances of gaining statehood seem far more unlikely. In addition to most Americans opposing statehood for the nation’s capital, the clear partisan lean of the district makes it a difficult political win.
Since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment gave Washington electoral votes, a Republican presidential candidate has never won in the district. The district, whose Black population is equal to its white population at 46% each, overwhelmingly votes Democratic. For that reason, Washington’s statehood has less than 15% support from Republicans, as opposed to 39% for Democrats.
Even if Biden, who supports statehood for the district, were to win the presidency, it would be an uphill battle in Congress for any statehood bill to pass so long as Republicans held the Senate.
In June of this year, the Democrat-led House approved statehood for Washington almost entirely along partisan lines. Republican Senators rejected the bill and Trump threatened to veto it if it reached his desk.
Like Puerto Rico, Washington has a single, nonvoting representative in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who has been the district’s delegate since 1991, has long been an advocate for Washington, DC’s statehood. Nonetheless, her decades of advocacy have yet to produce results, even with the support of prominent leaders, including Obama and one-time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
With over 700,000 residents in the city itself (and more than 6 million in the surrounding metro area), Washington, DC has a greater population than Vermont and Wyoming.
How does a territory become a state?
The US Constitution addresses statehood in one passage in Article IV.
“New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.”
That leaves the specifics of how statehood is granted fairly vague. The typical process for a territory to become a state involves its inhabitants voting in a statehood referendum. If they support statehood, territory representatives bring their case to Congress.
If both chambers of Congress pass a resolution for statehood by a simple majority, it requires the president’s signature for the territory to become a state.
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