There are many misconceptions about Puerto Rico. Some people believe that Puerto Rico is a separate country from the United States and that a passport is required for entry. Others believe that Spanish would no longer be welcome in Puerto Rico if it transitioned to statehood.
One of the most common misbeliefs is that the people of Puerto Rico have never voted for statehood.
A recent informal social media poll asking whether Puerto Rico should be a state received numerous answers like these:
- “This should be put to a vote among Only Puerto Ricans. Let them decide!”
- “It should be up to them whether or not to join the Union as a state! If they do, they should be welcomed with open arms!”
There were also answers like these:
- “No, PR voted to not become state previously so we need to give them independence and responsibility for themselves.”
- “They didn’t want statehood before so not now either.”
In fact, Puerto Rico has voted for statehood in three status referendums since 2012.
There have been three plebiscites or status votes in Puerto Rico in the 21st century: in 2012, 2017, and 2020.
- In 2012, 61% of voters chose statehood.
- In 2017, 97% chose statehood.
- In 2020, 53% chose statehood.
In 2018, following two status votes choosing statehood, Puerto Rico officially requested admission as a state. The resident commissioner, Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, introduced a bill to admit Puerto Rico as a state after the 2020 vote, as well.
To be sure, there have been debates over the text of the ballot, namely how the Puerto Rico status options are described. In 2017, for example, some eligible voters complained that although the ballot contained an option to continue Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, it did not include an option for Puerto Rico to be a “commonwealth” – a term sometimes used to describe Puerto Rico’s current status and sometimes used to describe an impossible mix of sovereignty with existing U.S.-related benefits, including U.S. citizenship for the nation of Puerto Rico.
This “commonwealth” option had been left off the 2017 ballot as a non-viable alternative. Some eligible voters chose not to vote because, although a “territory” option was on the ballot (garnering less than two percent of the vote), a “commonwealth” option was not. The commonwealth supporters called their unwillingness to vote a boycott and then called the final vote flawed due to lack of turnout.
So why is Puerto Rico not a state?
As we have seen, many people believe that a territory can become a state just by voting to do so.
But Congress must admit states. Under the U.S. Constitution, it is up to Congress to form new states. A plebiscite is a vote taken to get a sense of what the people want. It is not binding on Congress, and Congress has not chosen to respond to the expressed will of the people of Puerto Rico.