2016 Election Strengthens Prospects for a 51st State
By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University
Since the 1960s, both Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. have actively tried to join the Union as our 51st state. Puerto Rico has sought to become a state since 1967, when it conducted its first referendum on the issue. Washington, D.C. has pursued statehood since 1980, when it became clear that D.C. citizens would not be represented in Congress any other way.
Puerto Rico held three referendums on statehood in 1967, 1993 and 1998. Each time, the vote showed that Puerto Ricans favored retaining their territorial status, rather than becoming a new U.S. state. Over time, however, the momentum has shifted toward statehood.
Puerto Ricans Finally Vote to become a State
In 2012, Puerto Rico funded and held another referendum in which 61% of the citizens voted for statehood and the Puerto Rican government asked Congress to grant it. As a result of this request, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, responsible for statehood issues, held a hearing on statehood for Puerto Rico on August 1, 2013.
The eventual result of the hearing was the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act. This act provided $2.5 million in federal funding for yet another referendum to be held in Puerto Rico, which has not yet been held.
In 1982 and 1987, District residents ratified a state constitution and proposed a new state name, “New Columbia.” Since the early 1980s, only one bill reached a floor vote in the House of Representatives. In November 1993, statehood was defeated by a 277 to 153 vote.
Since then, there has been only one congressional hearing and no D.C. statehood bill has been brought to the floor for a vote. In July 2014, President Obama endorsed statehood for D.C., noting that its residents pay more federal taxes than the citizens of 22 states.
Latest Attempt at DC Statehood Follows 19th Century Methods
In the upcoming presidential election, residents of Washington, D.C. will again vote on becoming our 51st state, as well as approve a new state constitution drafted in a constitutional convention in July of this year. These steps follow the 19th century national method of seeking statehood.
The steps include a referendum on statehood approved by a majority of citizens and a referendum approved on a state constitution. Other steps are defining the boundaries of the new state and agreeing that the new state will adhere to a republican form of government in accordance with the Constitution.
Article IV, Section Three of the Constitution grants Congress the power to admit new states into the Union. Both Alaska and Hawaii attained statehood simply by Congress passing a bill, which the president then signed into law.
Political Considerations Hamper Efforts
So, if the statehood process is that straightforward, why haven’t Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. become states by now? The answer is politics. In general, Republicans are wary of any new states because they are concerned that new states would likely vote Democratic in future elections.
As a result, November 8th becomes more than electing a president, members of Congress, state and local representatives, and a slew of new initiatives. The vote could also determine the future of Washington, D.C. as the 51st state.
For either Puerto Rico or D.C. to move closer to statehood, however, the Democratic Party candidate will have to be elected president. Also, the Democrats will need to retake control of the Senate with enough votes (at least 60) to overcome a possible filibuster on this issue in 2017 and beyond.
As for Puerto Rico, we still await the island’s next statehood referendum.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.
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