What Happens If Puerto Rico Becomes the 51st State?
Puerto Rico has been all over the news lately, first with a referendum on statehood in June (which passed with 97.16% voting in favor) and currently with recovery efforts underway after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. Even with substantial attention by the media, a survey by Morning Consult in September found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born on the island commonwealth are U.S. citizens.
So what would happen if Puerto Rico was allowed into the Union as that 51st State? (Sorry DC and Guam — your stories will have to wait for a future post.)
First off, the process to become a state. The U.S. Constitution spells out in Article IV, Clause 3, Section 1 that:
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.
Based off a 1953 report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, there are three traditionally accepted requirements for statehood:
- Residents of the proposed new state are sympathetic toward the principles of democracy as represented by the U.S. federal government
- A majority of the area’s population wish to join the Union as a state, and
- The potential state has sufficient population and resources to support a state government and contribute a fair share of the cost of the federal government.
While the process may change for any potential state, Congress usually has directed the government of the potential state to write and provide a state constitution. Upon accepting such constitution, Congress has adopted a joint resolution granting statehood, followed by a proclamation by the president announcing a new state has been added to the Union.
So Puerto Rico (among other areas) are seemingly eligible for statehood, depending on the whims of Congress. What does that mean politically and socially for the country?
Tax Changes for Puerto Rico Residents
Easily, the residents of Puerto Rico would see no change in their citizenship. People living on the island are already U.S. citizens, and wouldn’t see any change in nationality if the territory becomes a state. However, citizens are largely exempt from the federal income tax (individuals still pay payroll and Social Security taxes, but are not required to file with the IRS unless sources of income come from outside of Puerto Rico), meaning individuals’ financial obligations to the federal government would be altered. Final decisions on taxation would have to be addressed, but it seems likely their special exemption would be ended.
There is no official language for the United States, although it is commonly accepted to be English. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has both English and Spanish as official languages. However, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, 86% of residents spoke a language other than English at home (mostly Spanish), and only 28% were able to speak English “very well.” Some have suggested if Puerto Rico opted to become a state, the federal government would have to establish a primary language (English) or otherwise accommodate the language barrier between the mainland and island.
First off, an easy change. The U.S. Senate would expand to 102 members, enabling voters in Puerto Rico to elect two members to that body. This is pretty straight-forward, as Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution plainly spells out that “[t]he Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State…” As each state sends two Senators to Washington, if Puerto Rico was a state, it would constitutionally be permitted and responsible for electing two senators.
Five Members of House of Representatives
Beyond the Senate, the new state would also elect members to the House of Representatives. The 14th Amendment states that “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers.” While every state is guaranteed one seat in the House, the second and beyond are based off population numbers relative to the other states. This process is measured by a “priority value” calculating the order in which each of the seats in the House (currently at 435 full members — not including the delegates such as those sent from Puerto Rico with no voting privileges) are assigned to the states, allowing them to set district numbers during apportionment.
There is no Constitutional limit or requirement capping the House of Representatives at 435 members. Instead, the Apportionment Act of 1911 set the number starting with the 63rd Congress of 1913. Most likely, between Puerto Rico becoming a state and the 2020 (2030?) Census and the resulting reapportionment, Congress would most likely add seats to the House for Puerto Rico. (When Alaska and Hawaii became states, Congress temporarily increased voting members in the House to 437 until numbers could be adjusted following the next census.)
As House members are selected based off population, and Puerto Rico is an island of 3.4 million people, the island would be entitled to five seats — to the detriment of Minnesota, California, Texas, Washington and Florida, who were awarded the final five districts in 2010. Congress likely would simply add enough seats to the House roster until the next Census, to comply with the 14th Amendment.
The End of Five Thirty Eight in Electoral College
Another straight-forward change in numbers if Puerto Rico were to become a state would be an expansion of the Electoral College — which selects the individual to inhabit the White House for the next four years — from 538 to 540.
The Electoral College is set as the number of each state’s cumulative membership in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives (excluding Washington, DC, which is covered by the 23rd Amendment at three members). California has 53 members of the House and the standard two Senate seats, resulting in 55 Electoral College votes. Meanwhile, Wyoming has one member of the House and two Senators, resulting in three Electoral College votes.
Assuming Congress adjusts House membership temporarily, but retains the traditional 435 members post-Census, Puerto Rico would have seven Electoral College members (five House members and two Senators). Short-term, between becoming a state and the next Census, the Electoral College number would expand, presumably to 547. However, that number would depend on the resolution passed by Congress admitting Puerto Rico into the Union.
Party Strength in Puerto Rico
Here’s what you most likely were looking for reading this post. Who would inhabit those new Congressional seats and Electoral College votes from the new state of Puerto Rico? Well, the answer isn’t as cut-and-dry as one might quickly surmise.
First off, Puerto Rico doesn’t quite have the same political party structure as the rest of the country. The two main parties on the island are the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which advocates maintaining their current unincorporated territory status — also loosely aligned with national Democrats, and the New Progressive Party (PNP) aiming for statehood — and aligned with national Republicans. Both parties claim approximately 47% support on the island.
Both national parties can point to figures suggesting they would win elections for Senate or House members — although any measurement of House partisanship numbers would ultimately depend on gerrymandering or how the district lines were ultimately drawn. The current governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, is a member of PNP and aligns with Democrats, while the Resident Commissioner (their non-voting member of the House), Jenniffer Gonzalez, is a member of PNP and chair of the Puerto Rico Republican Party.
(Interesting side-note… the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico is the only member in all of the U.S. Congress regularly elected to a four-year term.)
Would the partisan strength of Puerto Rico translate easily to the Democratic / Republican battles across the rest of the nation? The answer isn’t very straight-forward. Island voters can cast ballots in presidential primaries, and in the 2016 primary, 41,196 voters cast a Republican ballot and 88,149 Democratic. While that number looks to reveal the island is heavily Democratic, there were also 128,834 Republican ballots in 2012 — Democratic nominee Barack Obama was unchallenged in the primary. Voters can cast ballots for whichever party they desire in presidential primaries.
“Maybe one of the five [new House members] would be a Republican,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate with the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College in New York, in an interview with ABC News. He added that some districts would likely vote for conservative Democrats, as most are economically liberal but socially conservative on the Roman Catholic island.