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Adding New States to the U.S. – What the Constitution Says

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has repeated his insistence that admission of any new state should require a national referendum.  Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) reintroduced a statehood bill for Washington, D.C. on the first day bills could be filed in the new Congress. Manchin spoke firmly against it, repeating the claim he made in the past, that all Americans should vote directly on the admission of new states.

Manchin’s claim most clearly applies to D.C. statehood. He said in a radio interview, ‘If Congress wants to make D.C. a state, it should propose a constitutional amendment. It should propose a constitutional amendment and let the people of America vote.” However, he made it clear to Latino Rebels reporters that he means for the same rule to apply to Puerto Rico.

“’Let the people of America vote [on a] constitutional referendum,’ said Manchin. When asked if he meant the people of Puerto Rico, Manchin doubled down. ‘The people of America,’ he repeated. ‘I’ve said that so many times before.’”

Joe Manchin chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for insular affairs — that is, the wellbeing of the nation’s island territories. This is the Senate committee which would need to consider a new status act for Puerto Rico.

Manchin reportedly told the San Juan Daily Star that Puerto Rico statehood “is not on his committee’s agenda.”

Is a referendum required?

While it is possible to argue that the admission of Washington, D.C., as a state would require a constitutional amendment, admission of a territory like Puerto Rico as a state is covered by the New States Clause of the Constitution.

Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 says clearly what is required:

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.

Congress can admit a new state at any time with a simple majority. Alaska was admitted with a 53% majority in the House. Congress is not required to hold a referendum in the territory being admitted as a state (they didn’t do so in Alabama, for example), let alone a national referendum.

In addition, the Equal Footing doctrine makes it clear that all states must be treated equally. No state has ever before required a national referendum for admission. Therefore, Congress cannot require this step for Puerto Rico.

Manchin’s statement to Latino Rebels does not make it clear what kind of constitutional amendment he has in mind. Perhaps a constitutional amendment to require a national referendum for the admission of new states is what he has in mind. Maybe he has confused Puerto Rico with D.C. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced a bill in the House in 2021 which would have required a two-thirds vote to admit a new state.

Requiring a national referendum on Puerto Rico statehood would be unconstitutional without some change in the U.S. Constitution.

Updated February 9, 2023

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