Following Tuesday’s vote, two groups are on course to try and become America’s 51st state: Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
Both D.C. and Puerto Rico have non-voting representatives in the U.S. House, people born in both locations are U.S. citizens and have pushed for statehood in the past, but neither have a voice in the Senate. The outcome of Tuesday’s election could change that, but the chances of either becoming a state are very low.
The District of Columbia has pushed for statehood several times throughout its history, as well as for a voice in the Electoral College. The latter came in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd amendment, the last vote on D.C. statehood in the House – in November 1993 – failed by a vote of 153-277.
Since that vote, the effort to gain statehood for the district – which has an estimated population greater than both Vermont and Wyoming – has continued. Former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama have both come out in support of D.C. statehood. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton said she supported D.C. statehood while Donald Trump said he did not have an official position.
On Election Day, voters approved Advisory Referendum B – Statehood Proposal with more than 79 percent of the vote. The ballot summary was listed as:
To ask the voters on November 8, 2016, through an advisory referendum, whether the Council should petition Congress to enact a statehood admission act to admit the State of New Columbia to the Union. Advising the Council to approve this proposal would establish that the citizens of the District of Columbia (“District”) (1) agree that the District should be admitted to the Union as the State of New Columbia; (2) approve of a Constitution of the State of New Columbia to be adopted by the Council; (3) approve the State of New Columbia’s boundaries, as adopted by the New Columbia Statehood Commission on June 28, 2016; and (4) agree that the State of New Columbia shall guarantee an elected representative form of government.
Shall the voters of the District of Columbia advise the Council to approve or reject this proposal?
ABC News reported Monday that the lack of representation in Congress has been a sticking point for residents, notably on license plates that read “Taxation Without Representation.”
The measure by Washington D.C. would mimic the bid made by Tennessee to become a state in the late 1700s, in that Tennessee was formed from territory under jurisdiction of the federal government. The entire area of the district is roughly 68 square miles, roughly 18 times smaller than Rhode Island. Federal property would be carved out around federal buildings like the White House, Capitol and National Mall for a federal district, which is required under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. The rest of the 68 square miles would form the State of New Columbia.
The United States has controlled Puerto Rico since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, but Puerto Ricans weren’t granted citizenship until the Jones Act of Puerto Rico was enacted in 1917. Even with citizenship, people living in Puerto Rico do not get a voice in the Electoral College.
The Census Bureau’s 2015 estimate of Puerto Rico’s population is at 3.47 million, comparable to that of Iowa and Connecticut. This estimate is down from the 2010 census population was 3.73 million, as many have left the commonwealth to find work during their multi-year economic downturn.
Puerto Rico Governor-elect Ricardo Rossello campaigned on a pledge to turn the territory into a state in his term. He told the AP the he would draft a state constitution, hold elections for two senators and five representatives for Congress, and send them to Washington to demand statehood.
"I'm honored Puerto Rico gave me an opportunity. ... We will establish a quality of life that will allow (Puerto Ricans) to return to the land where they were born," Rossello told the Associated Press Tuesday.
The 37-year-old scientist and son of former Gov. Pedro Rossello argues statehood would boost the island’s economy.
Like the push for D.C. statehood, a push for Puerto Rico statehood has seen support from Congress in the past. Fox News Latino reported in 2014 that Sen. Martin Heinrich (D – New Mexico) submitted a bill that would admit Puerto Rico as a state, assuming their citizens approved the idea. The bill, along with another that was filed in the House, died in committee.
The federal government has actually set aside money for this purpose of determining its future. As part of a spending bill passed in January 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives set aside $2.5 million for Puerto Rico to hold a referendum at any time. Puerto Rico has not held a referendum regarding statehood since 2012, and that referendum was not binding.
The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) has a majority in the outgoing House and Senate, but the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico (PNP) will have a majority in new House. The PNP's website states it includes members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Becoming a state
“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.”
Using a real example, there have been attempts to have parts of Oregon and California break away and form the State of Jefferson. This section of the Constitution states that Congress and the legislatures of both Oregon and California would have needed to approve such a move. This movement had traction in the early 1940s, but fell dormant after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The movement has been revived in recent years, but if it reached the point it could become a state, the legislatures in Salem, Sacramento and Washington would all need to consent to it.
There have also been several proposals to divide Texas into multiple states. According to The Texas State Historical Association, there was an attempt around 100 years ago to form a State of Jefferson in West Texas, but the effort fell apart.
Since Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico are not currently parts of other states, Congress will get the say. ABC reported an additional requirement for Washington, D.C. to become a state, in that Congress would first need to propose an amendment to the Constitution and get a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.
Why a new state is unlikely
Admitting states would add representatives to the House in respect to each new state’s population and each new state would get two senators regardless of size. While there is no limit on the number of Senators, the House fixed the number of representatives at 435 in 1929. (Note: The House did have 437 representatives after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union in 1959, but the acts that admitted each state said the new seats were temporary.)
New Columbia would get one representative, but Puerto Rico would get four or five representatives (Iowa has four representatives and Connecticut has five based on their populations). Assuming Congress does not raise the number of representatives, those five or six total representatives would be redistributed from other states and districts would be merged with others to compensate for the state's reduction in representatives. Essentially, five or six U.S. representatives would be forced to campaign against a colleague to keep his or her job.
This is the main obstacle both potential states face. In addition to some representatives being forced out, Republicans believe admitting Washington D.C. as New Columbia would add two Democratic senators and one Democratic representative. As of Nov. 11, not all of the races for seats in the 115th United States Congress have been decided, but it is already known that the Republican Party will have a majority in both the House and Senate. Adding seats for Democrats in the House and Senate presents the slim chance the Democrats would retake the majority in the 2018 midterm election.
If Puerto Rico sends their delegation to Washington during the Trump's time in office, it will likely have a mix of Democrats and Republicans. The exact ratio will not be known until elections are held for their senators and representatives.
People living in both D.C. and Puerto Rico are lobbying to become states. It is up to Congress to determine if one, both or neither will be admitted to the union any time soon.
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