On November 3rd, Puerto Ricans once again voted to become a State of the Union. Most territories which have become States have held one or more status votes of this kind, but a status plebiscite doesn’t automatically trip a switch that admits the territory as a State. Congress must take action.
Puerto Rico voted for statehood in 2012 and 2017, but Congress did not take that action. There have been quite a few explanations for Congress’s lack of response, but some new research examines one possible factor.
How do Americans in general feel about Puerto Rico statehood?
“Legislators have introduced bills to admit Puerto Rico as a U.S. state before. Those don’t get far — in part because little is known about whether mainland American voters would support that initiative,” said the authors in an article in the Washington Post.
Gallup has reported that two thirds of Americans support statehood for Puerto Rico, and other polls have shown similar levels of support for the idea. However, polls over the years have also found the same correlation between ignorance and negative responses. For example, people who do not know that Puerto Rico belongs to the United States or that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States are less likely to favor statehood. For these individuals, being asked about statehood for Puerto Rico would be equivalent to being asked about statehood for Cuba or Haiti.
How does information change minds?
The researchers asked 1,750 non-Hispanic white U.S. citizens living in states their opinions about statehood for Puerto Rico. The respondents were divided randomly into two groups. One read information about the coquí, a tree frog from Puerto Rico. The other group read a passage which “described Puerto Ricans as having been U.S. citizens since 1917 and serving in every major U.S. war since World War I. It also explained that while residing on the island, Puerto Ricans do not have the ability to vote for U.S. president and do not have a voting representative in Congress.”
Comparing the two groups, the researchers found significant differences in their responses. “The ‘informed’ respondents had significantly higher levels of support (51 percent vs. 40 percent) and lower levels of opposition (19 percent vs. 26 percent) to statehood than did the coquí group,” they reported.
This was true for both Republicans and Democrats, and they did not see differences in the effect of information for different demographics.
How does this affect Congress?
Members of Congress strive to represent their constituents. If Congressional representatives, like the authors of the new study, feel that their constituents are ambivalent about statehood, it would be hard for statehood to gain high priority status. If those constituents learn more about Puerto Rico and become stronger supporters of statehood, they could influence their representatives to move Puerto Rico Statehood up to a position of higher priority.
Indeed, there may be Members of Congress who – like their fellow U.S. citizens – would become supporters of statehood if they had more information about Puerto Rico. Those who support statehood for Puerto Rico could, if this research is accurate, further their cause simply by enhancing their education and outreach efforts.