It has been such a long time since the United States added a state that most of us have forgotten how it works.
One uncertainty is the question of ratification. HR 1522, The Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions bill, calls for the voters of Puerto Rico to ratify, or approve, the offer of statehood presented by Congress.
The proposal does not mandate statehood for Puerto Rico. What it does is send a message to the people of Puerto Rico that Congress recognizes the current undemocratic situation and acknowledges statehood as an acceptable alternative.
Similar votes took place in Hawaii and Alaska when they became states.
In both instances, initial up-or-down votes on statehood resulted in statehood winning with a clear but not overwhelming majority. Only after Congress made clear that it took the initial votes seriously did voters in the U.S. territories demonstrate overwhelming support for statehood.
Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900, seven years after the fall of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Citizens of Hawaii became U.S. citizens at the same time. Almost 50 Hawaii statehood bills were presented in Congress between 1900 and 1959.
In 1937, 17 days of hearings on Hawaii’s political status were conducted in Hawaii. Congress decided that Hawaii was eligible for statehood, and asked for a statehood referendum.
Hawaii voters chose statehood 46,174 to 22,426 votes in the first statehood plebiscite held in 1940. That was a statehood win 67% – 32% in a statehood-yes-or-no vote.
Congress did not act immediately.
In March 1959, the Senate and the House passed legislation that officially offered statehood to Hawaii. In June 1959, Hawaii voters approved the Statehood bill by a vote of 132,773 to 7,971.
This was an overwhelming majority of the votes, 94% yes to 5% no. While the plebiscite and the ratification votes both gave a majority to statehood, there was a big difference in the percentages after Congress recognized the statehood option as acceptable.
Alaska became a territory of the United States in 1912, but had been a possession of the U.S. since 1867 with a promise to become a state. Alaska held a referendum in 1946 to see whether its citizens wanted statehood. Statehood won 58% – 41% in a statehood-yes-or-no vote.
As with Hawaii, statehood held a clear but not overwhelming majority.
In 1958, Congress offered statehood to Alaska. The Statehood Yes/No vote ratifying Alaska statehood was overwhelming: 83% – 16% in a statehood-yes-or-no vote.
Again, the ratification votes cleared by a much higher percentage than the initial referendum.
Puerto Rico has had a number of referenda over the years. Its most recent referendum, a Statehood Yes/No vote like those held in Hawaii and Alaska, had a clear majority for statehood.
Like Hawaii and Alaska, Puerto Ricans are waiting to hear from a unified Congress that its ambitions for statehood are taken seriously. There is no shortage of support from individual members of Congress, but history shows that a law demonstrating U.S. support for full democracy and equality for its territories through statehood will impact local votes.
Following the passage of HR 1522, a ratification bill like those held in our two youngest states should be expected to show a higher percentage for statehood.