August 10, 2022

The 51st State: Puerto Rico’s statehood depends on the political party that will control the US Senate

Puerto Ricans applied for statehood on November 3, 2020, with 52.3% of voters asking to change the island’s status from unincorporated territory to a U.S. state.

This is the sixth time the state has been on the ballot since Puerto Rico ratified its Constitution in 1952. Voters rejected the status change in 1967, 1993 and 1998. The results of the 2012 election were unclear as some voters did not respond to both sides of a two-party question of state. In 2017, statehood achieved a decisive victory, albeit with a very low turnout of around 23%.

Puerto Rico did not become the 51st state by then and is unlikely to become a state anytime soon. Only Congress can add new states to the Union, either through an admission law or a House resolution that requires simple majority approval of the House and Senate.

Territorial status

The United States wrested Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, along with Cuba, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands. Soon after, a series of Supreme Court rulings called “island cases” – delivered by the same tribunal that held constitutional racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson – believed that most of the new American territories were inhabited by “extraterrestrial races”, ungovernable by “” Anglo-Saxon principles.

These cases have characterized US island territories as incorporated or not, each with a different set of rights. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory. It resembles American states in many ways, but its resident taxpayers are not represented in Congress, cannot vote for the president, and do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as other Americans.

Without a vote in Congress, Puerto Rico’s needs are not well represented in Washington. Puerto Rico’s legal status virtually defines the island’s policy. Rather than offering clear left or right policies, Puerto Rico’s two main political parties are traditionally defined by their position on the state. The People’s Democratic Party is generally in favor of maintaining a territory in Puerto Rico; the New Progressive Party is pro-state. Both have members aligned with Democrats and Republicans.

The New Progressive Party’s grip on the cause of the state loosened in 2020. Some 215,000 Puerto Ricans who voted for the state voted against its pro-state candidate for governor, Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, who won his race very close. The New Progressive Party’s candidate for resident commissioner – Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives – received 132,000 votes less than the state.

Status in 2020

All of these split tickets reflect a larger political upheaval taking place in Puerto Rico after an eventful half-decade. Since 2015, Puerto Rico has defaulted on some of its debt, suffered a budget crisis, was ravaged by Hurricane Maria and survived a rare series of “cluster earthquakes”. The economic recovery has been weak and the disaster recovery since Maria was botched by local corruption and federal indolence.

Discontent with Puerto Rican leaders, compounded by fiscal austerity imposed by a Washington-controlled federal council, peaked last year with massive protests. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares resigned in August 2019.

After Rosselló’s resignation, his New Progressive Party had a very public fight over the succession process. A chaotic primary pitted its factions aligned with Republicans and Democrats. All of the drama and corruption seems to have left many state supporters in Puerto Rico fed up with the New Progressive Party and politics in general.

In the 2020 election, new parties with clearer ideological offers – like the Progressive and Populist Citizen Victory Movement and the religion-based right-wing Dignity Project – had emerged. These upstart parties – along with Puerto Rico’s long-standing third party, the pro-independence Social Democratic Independence Party – pledged to make government work better, and some foreign candidates actually won.

Puerto Rico’s new parties have mostly not endorsed a particular choice regarding the 2020 state referendum, promising to respect whatever the outcome.

Some third-party candidates have offered alternatives to Puerto Rico’s frequent and non-binding statehood referendums. New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez defended a proposal to create a “statute assembly,” a convention of delegates that would develop concrete proposals on statehood, independence and a “free association” relationship more flexible with the United States.

These proposals would then be negotiated with Congress and voted on by the Puerto Rican electorate. In 2020, however, statehood was the only option on the ballot, and Puerto Ricans voted “yes.”

All eyes on Georgia

Any hope of a congressional follow-up to this referendum depends almost entirely on the Georgian Senate second round on January 5, 2021. If the Democrats win both seats in the Georgian Senate to secure a majority in the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer has pledged to pursue the status of Puerto Rican State. If Republicans retain a majority, however, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican senators would almost certainly block any efforts to make Puerto Rico a state.

Puerto Rican voters on the mainland typically vote Democrats, so most Republicans perceive statehood as a political threat, although Pew Research finds Puerto Ricans on the island to be a socially conservative crowd. Only a few Republican officials, such as Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, say they would support the creation of a Puerto Rican state. For now, all eyes are on Georgia.