Puerto Rico has been bandying about the idea of becoming the 51st state for nearly half a century now, and support has grown over time. Four votes have been held, in 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012, each time the percentage of voters who want the full rights and responsibilities of statehood getting larger.
In 1967 only 39 percent wanted statehood, compared with about 60 percent for retaining their commonwealth territory status, and a paltry half a percent wanting full independence. In both 1993 and 1998, voter support for statehood hovered around 46 percent, with independence growing to about five percent in 1993 before settling back down to two and a half percent in 1998. Interestingly, support for remaining a commonwealth dropped to under 49 percent in 1993, but “none of the above” took over half of the votes in 1998, mostly due to a dispute over ballot wording.
All of that changed in 2012, however, when voters answered a two part question. The first asked whether they would want to retain their territorial status, which was rejected by a 54-46 percent margin. The second part asked what status they would prefer to have between statehood, independence, or Free Association, which is something short of full independence but not quite as restrictive as being a territory. Statehood was overwhelmingly selected by 60 percent of voters, with Free Association receiving about 33 percent and independence around five and a half. Disputes over the way the vote was held led to the referendum being disregarded, leaving Puerto Rico right back where they have been since 1898 — a United States territory.
Things have changed on the small island again in 2015, however. The economy has tanked in recent years, with unemployment at over 12 percent and publicly held debt at over $72 billion, about 70 percent of their $103 billion GDP, $40 billion of which is just unfunded retirement programs for government workers. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, they would be eligible for a huge influx of bailout money from the federal government, not to mention all of the other rights and responsibilities that come along with becoming a state. And according to an August 25 Fox News Latino report, the movement toward statehood sees this as their chance.
Puerto Rico’s economic woes have led to a mass exodus of younger people who are seeking work elsewhere, mostly on the mainland United States. Additionally, the government has been routinely engaging in irresponsible economic policies that would make even Bernie Sanders blush. Government overspending and the federal minimum wage have left the island destitute, driving it further into the ground.
If Puerto Rico were to become a state, the new rights they would receive would also include electing voting members to both houses of Congress, two Senators and five Representatives, and having a say in presidential contests, seven electoral votes, which leads to the question of which party they would be more heavily supportive of. While conventional wisdom has held that they would most likely be left of center overall and support Democrats over Republicans, some studies have shown that they would more likely be a center party. The politics of the island tends to be somewhat socially conservative, though fiscal policy would lean a bit more to the left. The two states with the highest Puerto Rican populations, New York and Florida, have shown the voting bloc go either direction — left in New York and right in Florida.
They would also be the 29th largest state by population — larger than Connecticut or Iowa — and their GDP already ranks around the same as Washington D.C.’s at around 35 or so. The $72 billion debt would be a drop in the bucket for the United States federal government (hell, they gave tens times that amount to the banks in the TARP program) and the additional tax revenue and stabilization of the tiny island would likely help both sides in the long run.
Traditionally in the United States, when admitting a new state to the union another of the opposing political viewpoint is added at the same time or shortly thereafter (except for a period during the late 19th century when a whole mess of midwestern and western states were admitted more for economic than political reasons, but that is a whole other article). This tradition began as a means of balancing slave states with free states, but has held over by adding both a Democrat and Republican leaning state around the same time. For example, when adding Alaska and Hawaii it was expected that Hawaii would go Republican while Alaska would go Democrat. Although that has been more or less the opposite for much of the time, the theory still holds true.
All of that begs the question of where to get a second state to balance Puerto Rico out with. The only other candidate who has expressed any interest in becoming a state is Washington D.C., and the chances of that happening anytime soon are slim, both due to some of the political concerns about an extremely Democratic leaning state joining as well as whether or not it would even be legal under the Constitution, John Oliver riling up his viewers aside. Guam has also been bandied about in the past and would also be a state which would be toward the center, and even possibly right of center thanks to a large military population and social issues voters. But Guam becoming a state is a long way off and the native population has expressed little interest in the prospect.
Of course, this is all assuming they can actually hold another referendum that will both hold up to scrutiny and show a majority in favor of becoming a state. The government already set aside about $2.5 million for a future referendum following the 2012 debacle, though they did not put a timeline on it. If the economy gets much worse, however, they may have to move forward sooner rather than later, lest they completely default on their debts and plunge Puerto Rico into complete chaos.