Thirty-two U.S. territories have already become states. How did they do it? What is the process for a territory to become a state?
The U.S. Constitution has the simple answer:
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.
The big part of this sentence is, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” In other words, Congress can make a new State at any time, without any other requirements.
Changing State Borders
The rest of the sentence explains that Congress can’t make a new State within a State without permission from the State or States in question. So Congress couldn’t make Northern Colorado into an independent State without permission from Colorado’s legislature.
If Congress wanted to make a new state of Jefferson out of Southern Oregon and Northern California, and both Oregon and California agreed, Congress could create that state. The residents of the new State wouldn’t have to agree, though historically votes are usually taken before anything like this takes place.
What about territories?
Congress can make a territory into a State at any time, without getting permission from anyone.
Congress usually waits for a territory to request statehood. Some territories have requested statehood many times without getting any response from Congress. Utah, for example, formally asked for statehood eight times over a period of 50 years before being admitted to the Union.
Typically, once Congress gets the request for statehood, they make some conditions for the new state.
The Northwest Ordinances decided to make territories wait until they had 60,000 residents before making them states. There were exceptions. Arkansas, for example, was admitted with fewer people than the requirement, possibly because they lied about their population. Colorado took a census of their residents in high summer, when all the miners present brought their population up past 60,000… instead of the 28,000 year-round residents. Kansas reputedly invited people in from Missouri to vote in order to bolster their apparent numbers.
The Northwest Ordinances also set the pattern for state constitutions. Congress would give permission to a territory to draft a constitution. If the state constitution did not harmonize with the U.S. Constitution, the territory would be sent back to work on it some more before being admitted to statehood.
Congress sent states back to the drawing board for racial discrimination in laws, especially laws about voting, and for laws that would not protect federal lands. Polygamy was the biggest factor delaying Utah’s admission.
But the U.S. Constitution doesn’t prevent Congress from making conditions for individual territories that want to become states. The Northwest Ordinance, as one scholar put it, meant that “Congress has developed a general process for the admission of new states, albeit a process which is rarely followed precisely in individual cases.”
During and around the Civil War, Congress made conditions that were obviously strategic. The custom of admitting states in pairs — one slave state with one free state — became so entrenched that even today many people believe that states must be admitted in pairs.
Other conditions seem to revolve around loyalty and being American enough. Louisiana had to agree to use English in its courts. New Mexico had to teach English in its schools and guarantee religious freedom. Hawaii, admitted during the Cold War, had to promise to make its public servants take loyalty oaths.
Some territories were required to hold a plebiscite to make sure that residents wanted statehood.
None of these conditions are required by law. They are all up to the whim of the Congress.
Once the territory meets the requirements of Congress, Congress votes. A simple majority in the House and the Senate is all that is required to make a new state.
The President of the United States then signs the bill. Some presidents in the past have refused, including Andrew Johnson and Grover Cleveland. Sometimes they have signed the next time the bill reached their desk, and sometimes Congress has waited for a new president, who has signed the bill.
Once this takes place, the territory becomes a State, and has all the rights, responsibilities, and powers of a State.
Puerto Rico certainly has a large enough population, and Congress has already approved Puerto Rico’s constitution. If there are any other conditions, Puerto Rico would have to meet those requirements and then Congress would approve admission for Puerto Rico.
Some people believe that the other States must ratify Puerto Rico’s admission, or that there would have to be a two thirds majority in the vote in Congress. These misconceptions just show how long it has been since the U.S. last admitted a state. A simple majority is all that is required.