Puerto Rico’s quest to be the 51st state hits a critical point

A Sunday vote in Puerto Rico could result in the commonwealth using an obscure process to seek statehood status in Washington. However long the odds are, the mere act of a territory asking to become a state is rare in modern times.

Officially, voters in Puerto Rico will pick from three options in a nonbinding referendum: seeking the status of U.S. statehood; the status of an independent, free-associated government; or retaining territorial status. The Justice Department had asked Puerto Rico’s government to include the last option, but it hasn’t yet approved revised ballot language – adding more drama to Sunday’s vote.

Some political observers believe the statehood option has a good chance of getting the most votes. But the chances of Puerto Rico actually becoming the 51st state still seem remote, especially in the current supercharged political environment of Washington, D.C.

The referendum’s supporters, which include Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, see statehood as the best way out of a deep financial crisis hurting the island that includes a bankrupt local government and a $70 billion debt situation.

However, the addition of a new state to the union is a huge event with constitutional and political ramifications. Congress, with some input from the President, decides when new states are added under the Admissions Clause in the Constitution’s Article IV, Section 3.

In our Interactive Constitution, scholars Eric Biber and Thomas C. Colby explained the basic process.

“The Admissions Clause provides that admission of a state requires at least one Act of Congress. However, Congress has often followed a more complicated process,” they explain. “For many admitted states, Congress first passed an Enabling Act, which authorized the population of a territory to convene a constitutional convention to draft a constitution for the new proposed state, and to apply for admission to Congress. Often in the Enabling Act, Congress specified a range of conditions that the proposed state had to meet in order for admission to occur.”

In the past, these conditions have included pledges to ban polygamy and slavery, and to practice religious toleration. “Once the proposed state constitution was drafted, it was sent to Congress, which then decided whether to pass an additional act or resolution admitting the state. One variation in the Enabling Act process involved Congress delegating the final approval process to the President,” said Biber and Colby.

It took Alaska and Hawaii decades to get by congressional barriers to gain statehood in 1959 for a few simple additional reasons: adding a new state changes the balance of power in the House, the Senate and the Electoral College. The 49th and 50th states were approved by Congress when their importance as Cold War bastions became apparent, and it was understood that Hawaii would come in as a Republican state and Alaska was perceived as a state that would favor Democrats.

Rosselló’s plan, if the referendum favors statehood, is to use an option dating back to the Founders’ time to force Congress to act on Puerto Rico’s statehood application.

The Tennessee Plan was first used in 1796 when residents of the Southwest Territory declared themselves a state by taking a census, approving a state constitution, and naming their own Senators and House representatives (including Andrew Jackson). The aspiring state then asked Congress to approve the moves. Only six of the 37 states admitted to the union after its founding have used versions of the Tennessee Plan.

Alaska used a version of the Tennessee Plan to send its proposed Senators and Representative to lobby Congress, but it was the first state to use that tactic since the Civil War.

Rosselló is expected to follow a similar plan after signing a bill on Monday that would allow him to pick two prospective Senators and five Representatives to send to Washington, D.C., to lobby for statehood.

Their success in current-day Washington would seem unlikely. In 2017, Puerto Rico is seen as a potential state that also would bring more Democrats into the Electoral College and Congress. The House of Representatives and the Senate, which are controlled by the Republicans, would need to approve such a move.

The reality is that two new Senators would be added to accommodate Puerto Rico and at least five new Representatives could be added, if Congress agreed to reapportion the House. The Electoral College also would grow, too. With these trends favoring the Democrats, such moves would not be approved by Congress and a Republican president.

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