Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | U.S. Department of State, 28 December 2012
Washington — The United States began as a union of 13 former British colonies. The state roster, expanding incrementally through two centuries, now stands at 50, but that could change.
Puerto Rico has functioned as an unincorporated U.S. territory since 1898. Its residents hold U.S. citizenship and can move freely throughout the United States. They are subject to U.S. federal laws and pay U.S. taxes, but lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress. After decades of debate about the island’s political status, 54 percent of Puerto Ricans indicated they were not satisfied with the status quo in a November 6 referendum.
The referendum came in two parts, asking voters whether statehood, independence or “sovereign free association,” which would grant the island more autonomy, would be their preference if the island’s political status was changed. Of the nearly 1.78 million voters, nearly 800,000 ( 61 percent) of those expressing an opinion chose statehood. About 437,000 chose sovereign free association, and 72,560 voted for independence. Nearly 500,000 did not express an opinion.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters December 3 that the results showed “the people of Puerto Rico have made it clear that they want a resolution to the issue of the island’s political status,” and he recommended the U.S. Congress “study the results closely and provide the people of Puerto Rico with a clear path forward that lays out the means by which Puerto Ricans themselves can determine their own status.”
For Puerto Rico to become a U.S. state, it would need a majority vote of approval from both houses of Congress. Article IV, Section Three of the U.S. Constitution states simply that Congress has the power to admit new U.S. states, provided that they guarantee "full faith and credit" to the now 50 states that already exist. That means Puerto Rico would have to recognize the legal contracts, marriages and criminal judgments approved by other U.S. states.
The road to statehood is not an easy one. In the District of Columbia, a majority of residents have repeatedly expressed their desire to gain voting representation in Congress. Unlike Puerto Rico, the district’s status is complicated by the fact that it was established by statute in 1790 as the national capital under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. That presents peculiar legal obstacles to statehood that a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico would not face.
HOW TO BECOME A U.S. STATE
The last time a U.S. state was admitted was in 1959, when the territories of Alaska and Hawaii became states. As with both of those states, a Puerto Rican bid for full membership would draw on legal precedents passed by U.S. legislators as the United States expanded westward across North America from the 13 original British colonies.
After the United States gained its independence in 1783, Americans began to settle a large area under U.S. control known as the Northwest Territory. The 670,000-square-kilometer region extended south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River. With the goal of westward expansion, U.S. lawmakers began clarifying how areas in the Northwest Territory could be admitted as U.S. states, and decided in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that the first qualification was to have a population of at least 60,000 people.
By the end of 1801, it became clear that Ohio, the easternmost part of the Northwest Territory, would soon meet the 60,000 person threshold, and the U.S. Congress passed the Enabling Act of 1802 (also known at the Ohio Enabling Act) to establish legal mechanisms for Ohio to join the United States as an equal member of the union. It would serve as the blueprint for the future.
Under that law, Ohio residents were asked to elect one representative for each 1,200 people to a November 1, 1802, convention that would decide by a majority vote if Ohioans would write a constitution and form a state government. If the vote was “yes,” the delegates would proceed to “form for the people of the said State a constitution and State government, provided the same shall be republican, and not repugnant” to elected representative government elsewhere in the United States. In other words, would-be leaders of Ohio could not set themselves up as autocrats.
In addition to writing and adopting their state’s constitution, the Ohioans also were asked to set aside a certain proportion of land in each township to be used for schools, and to use 5 percent of revenue from land sales to create roads through their proposed state. They also were allowed only one member of the U.S. House of Representatives pending the results of the next U.S. census, which would be taken in 1810 and create a fairer allocation.
The delegates approved a state constitution on November 29, 1802. On February 19, 1803, Congress determined that Ohio had met the requirements of the Enabling Act and passed legislation declaring Ohio "has become one of the United States of America." The legislation was then signed by President Thomas Jefferson.
The legal process for becoming a U.S. state has not changed much since 1803. A U.S. territory begins the process by demonstrating through local elections that there is a consensus for statehood, and then it formally petitions the U.S. Congress. It must draft a constitution creating a representative form of government and submit it to the U.S. Congress for majority approval. Finally, the U.S. president would sign the bill into law, creating the new state.
If Puerto Ricans, D.C. residents or others are thinking seriously about U.S. statehood, they should be forewarned that it is an irreversible decision. After the 1860–1861 secession crisis and the American Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1869 that joining the United States is “an indissoluble relation” and the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to leave unilaterally.
A 51st U.S. State? It Could Happen