In a somewhat ignored election day issue, the people of Puerto Rico voted to pass a non-binding resolution to seek statehood as the 51st state of the United States of America by a solid majority of 54% . Though there have been plenty of votes before, this is the first one where the statehood resolution passed. Now that a majority of Puerto Rican voters have supported statehood (with the options of independence and remaining as a commonwealth), what happens next? What is the way that Puerto Rico reaches statehood according to the U.S. Constitution? Continuing our series of essays, let us examine this question in light of the U.S. Constitution and American history.
Article IV deals with the states, and Section 3 is the constitutional requirements of admitting states into the Union. Article IV, Section 3 of the US Constitution reads as follows: “Section 3, Clause 1:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State 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 .”
So what does the Constitution say about admitting new states? Not much. First, the constitution guarantees the territorial integrity of states by requiring the consent of a state for secession by a part of the state. This has only been tried twice in the history of the United States since the passage of the U.S. Constitution. In 1820, Maine (which had been part of Massachusetts) received statehood, and Massachusetts consented to it. In 1863, West Virginia (which had been a part of Virginia) was admitted as a separate state, and the loyalist government of Virginia consented to it. So far so good. And second, the Constitution allows Congress the right to make the rules of how a territory becomes a state, so long as it does not prejudice the claims of any states or of the United States.
In practice, this grants Congress a great deal of latitude when it comes to granting statehood. Fortunately, among the first laws passed by the United States Congress was the Northwest Ordinance (passed unanimously, by a voice vote–imagine that in our present Congress), which stated that all states taken out of the Northwest Ordinance (which included Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) would be considered on an equal status with more established states. This set a precedent that there would be no tiers between regions but that all states would be seen as on the same level, which is one thing that allowed the United States to expand so widely and broadly. And with the vote of Puerto Rico, the United States appears poised to expand its states into the Caribbean. So what is the traditional way that a territory becomes a state?
Fortunately, there is a fairly well established pattern by which a territory becomes a state. First, a territory (like Puerto Rico) holds a referendum for statehood. If it passes (as Puerto Rico’s referendum passed this week), Congress then requires the territory to set up a government in accordance with the U.S. Constitution (“a republican form of government”) if it has not already done so. Then the House of Representatives and the Senate pass a joint resolution by a simple majority vote to admit the statehood of the territory, which is signed by the president . President Obama has already signaled (unsurprisingly) his willingness to sign such a joint resolution himself. And, to assuage those who are concerned about Puerto Rico’s application for statehood being rejected on narrow partisan grounds, no valid application for statehood has ever been rejected . And Puerto Rico’s application is valid.
So, what does this mean? In ethnocultural terms, Puerto Rico represents a Caribbean Hispanic culture that has been in existence since 1492 or thereabouts. Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898, when it was conquered in the Spanish-American War. Statehood represents a clear demand for bilingualism in American culture, since there is no way that Puerto Rico is going to be a monolingual English state. It is probably a good thing, overall, for America to come to terms with its Spanish-speaking constituent parts in a fair-minded way. This is a good start in that regard. Puerto Rico is going to want additional help as a state for its economy, but it is going to be required to pay taxes and “pull its weight” and is also going to have to wrestle with questions of security and questions of fraud regarding its citizenry and their documentation status. Presumably statehood would provide the resources to tackle these problems. Given historical precedent (even though we have not had an application for statehood in my lifetime), this should be an easy admission to statehood, though nothing is easy in these times.
 This is worthy of brief discussion. In the late 1850’s, there was an invalid application of statehood from the territory of Kansas, where illegal pro-slavery squatters from Missouri set up a government that favored their interests but that was opposed by the majority of free soil residents of Kansas. Despite heavy pressure from President Buchanan, the Lecompton Constitution was rejected (the invalid application for statehood), and in 1861 a valid application of Kansas as a free soil state under the Topeka government was accepted by Congress just in time for Kansas to take part as a free state in the American Civil War.