Puerto Rico voters have voted for statehood three times since 2012. It seems simple: the voters chose statehood, so now Congress should admit Puerto Rico.
So why does the recently reintroduced Puerto Rico Status Act call for yet another vote?
A compromise bill
The Puerto Rico Statehood Act, which was passed by the House last year and reintroduced in the new Congress this spring, was a negotiated compromise between two bills.
One was the Puerto Rico Statehood Act. This bill called for action in response to the Puerto Rico statehood vote of 2020, as well as those held in 2012 and 2017. The 2020 vote was a yes/no vote on statehood, and the Puerto Rico Statehood Act included ratification of that vote: one more up or down vote on statehood.
The other was called the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. It required a constitutional convention in which a complex set of rules would produce a large slate of possible status options, possibly including status definitions which have already been identified as unconstitutional.
The Puerto Rico Status Act compromised between these two bills by providing a choice between statehood and nationhood. The nationhood option was further broken down into two scenarios, one of which included the U.S. and Puerto Rico coming up with a free association arrangement. All three of these possibilities would be on a single ballot. Congress would agree to support whichever option Puerto Rico chose.
Controversy surrounding the bill
All sides of the political status question have expressed concerns about this proposed vote. Statehood advocates are confident that another vote will show statehood in the lead again, but many resent the idea of having to hold yet another vote after three majority votes for statehood have already taken place since 2012.
Independence has never received more than 5% of the vote in any plebiscite. Many question the reason for including this unpopular option. It is, however, possible under the U. S. Constitution.
Free association is controversial and remains less clearly understood than the other two options on the ballot. Some believe that this choice is simply a new label for the discredited “enhanced commonwealth” option that has been present in some form on some previous ballots. There is also uncertainty over the viability of including U.S. citizenship under this option, even though it is of limited duration.
Why introduce a new bill?
It has been so long since the United States admitted a new state that many people are confused about the process. What votes are required, who should vote, and what sort of majority is required? In fact, states (for example, Alabama) have been admitted without any votes being held in the territory. Similarly, U.S. citizens have never been able to vote directly on the admission of a new state to the U.S. The U.S. Congress must vote on admission but can admit a new state with a simple majority.
The last state joined the union in 1959, before many Americans of voting age were born. The process of state admission is unfamiliar to most voters. The Puerto Rico Status Act provides a process to consider Puerto Rico for statehood, one that begins with displaying congressional interest in the matter, and confirms the consent of the people of Puerto Rico.
At the end of the day, the justification for reintroducing the Puerto Rico Status may be found in the words of Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who explained upon the bill’s reintroduction:
“One more time, we’re expressing the values of our democracy, the values of self-determination, the values of respect for one another, wherever we may live. I’ve been Majority Leader twice, some years ago and just recently. And both times as Majority Leader, I’ve brought to the Floor a bill honoring the people of Puerto Rico and their democratic choice of their status. Not our imposition of status, not a colonial power, but their choice of what their status should be….And I am, as I have been since 1986, going to be working with as much energy and ability and passion as I can muster to make sure that the people of Puerto Rico have the right to choose their status, their destiny, their future. ”
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