Puerto Rico’s Halfhearted Statehood Bid and What Happens Next

Last weekend, on the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rican citizenship, a referendum for statehood was held in the manner typical of U.S. territorial transition to statehood. Less than a quarter of the population voted, but those that did did so overwhelmingly for citizenship.

In 2012 a similar referendum was posed but, of the nearly two million participants, a quarter did not participate in the ballot that determined statehood. In Washington D.C., congress did not vote to grant statehood to Puerto Rico based, ostensibly on the ambiguity of the vote’s turnout. President Obama said he would support statehood given a “clear majority” but he and congress never acted.

Only half a million of the nearly three and a half million people on the island turned up to vote this year. Of the only 23% that voted, 97% expressed a desire for statehood while all parties opposed urged a boycott of the vote. Again, the referendum remains ambiguous. In a state that consistently hovers around 80% in voter turnout the legitimacy of the mandate remains flimsy, unlikely to garner action from congress.

Regardless of the overwhelming majority’s obvious deficiencies, the ruling party, the New Progressive Party, which is strongly in favor of statehood, is eager to send delegates to congress in the first steps toward statehood. The 12th governor of the U.S. territory, Ricardo Rossello, told a small gathering he would push Washington for admittance in accordance with the vote. Rossello said he would send five representatives and two would-be senators to Washington to push what is being called the “Tennessee Plan,” after the means in which Tennessee entered the Union upon its own request before the original intention of congress.

The process that accepts states into the Union is not clearly defined by any single law. Generally any territory under US jurisdiction with a population in excess of 20,000 may petition to become a state or was planned to be made one. In the constitution, Article IV, Section 3, it says:

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.

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

It is now in the hands of the Republican government to admit or deny the almost certainly “blue” state.

Puerto Ricans are unhappy with the current state of things. The island’s economy has been depressed for a decade and the population is shrinking due to emigration to the mainland. Though most Peurto Ricans do not pay federal income tax, they pay into social security and medicare while not being eligible for all the social safety net funding of a full fledged state. The island’s economy is more equatable to a comparably sized Caribbean island than a state in the Union. Per capita income in Puerto Rico is half America’s poorest state, Mississippi, though it has an even larger population.