Presidential Blunders and a Path to Statehood

President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria was widely criticized, but little does he know that it could lead to Puerto Rican statehood. Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, those who live in the territory have significantly fewer rights and less influence in the government than those who live in one of the 50 states. Puerto Rican citizens can vote in U.S. primary elections, but not in the general election or in congressional elections. They have no representatives in the electoral college and have a single non-voting member to represent the island’s interests in Congress. 

While the first referendum in Puerto Rico to gauge voter interest in statehood occurred in 1967, the subject of statehood has been a highly contested issue since Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898. In the 1967 vote, 65.9 percent of voters preferred to remain a Commonwealth. Similar majorities were found in referendums held in 1993 and 1998. A referendum in 2012, taken in the midst of a local economic crisis, resulted in a slight majority favoring statehood. In June 2017, just months before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Ricans had another opportunity to voice their opinions on statehood. This time, 97 percent of voters favored statehood, but voter turnout was only 23 percent due to a ballot boycott by those opposing statehood. This referendum revealed the pervasive divide among Puerto Ricans on the issue.

As the economic crisis in Puerto Rico highlighted the financial benefits associated with statehood, it had a palpable effect in the 2012 referendum. Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria served as another reminder of the benefits of statehood — a reminder that tragically involved almost 3,000 deaths. As Puerto Ricans were suffering in the aftermath of the 2017 storm, Trump took to social media to bash the recovery efforts of local government, calling out San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Meanwhile, the response from the federal government to the devastation was less than satisfactory: six months after the hurricane hit, 16 percent of the island was still without power. 

An independent survey taken by The Washington Post Kaiser Family Foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria showed 48 percent support among Puerto Ricans for statehood, a stark contrast to the division seen less than a year earlier. In the same survey, 61 percent of Puerto Ricans expressed a belief that response to the hurricane would have been better if Puerto Rico was a state. As a result, the Puerto Rican government has renewed its efforts to fight for statehood, with Governor Ricardo Rosselló sending Trump a letter outlining this goal one day before the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria. 

Despite this political will, there is little Puerto Rico can do to advance its vision of statehood. The path for creating a U.S. state is not well outlined in the Constitution. In fact, the only guidance comes from Article IV Section 3: “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union.” Yet there is significant precedent for doing so. The process for Hawaii and Alaska, the two newest states, to achieve statehood included congressional bills signed by the president. There have traditionally been population requirements, which Puerto Rico would meet easily at 3.4 million people, and a requirement that the new state draft and ratify a state constitution which aligns with the U.S. Constitution. Puerto Rico’s constitution was approved by Congress and the president in 1952. Therefore, Congress has the power at any time to propose a bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state. In fact, Congress would be under no obligation to consult Puerto Rican citizens — which shines light on just how little control the territory holds over its own affairs. 

However, Puerto Rican statehood does not just affect Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico would receive two senators as well as five representatives according to 2017 population statistics. Minnesota, California, Texas, Washington, and Florida would each lose a representative. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are likely to vote Democratic, so Republicans are unlikely to favor Puerto Rican statehood and the addition of more Democratic representatives in Congress. 

Even as Trump has come out as an ‘absolute no’ on the question of Puerto Rican statehood, his mishandling of Hurricane Maria relief has only rallied Puerto Rican support. The more Trump and the federal government treat Puerto Ricans as second class citizens, the more beneficial it is in Puerto Ricans’ minds for them to achieve statehood in order to be better positioned to fight for their rights. It is unlikely that Trump will approve a congressional bill to grant Puerto Rico statehood, even if it gets through Congress, but the next president may. Presidents have been in support of Puerto Rican statehood in the past, though at the time it seemed like Puerto Ricans themselves were not. Ultimately, Trump’s actions are setting up Puerto Rico in the long term with a clearer basis of support for statehood — one that with the 2020 presidential election approaching, may soon become an agenda item for the next administration. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Francisco Jose Carrera Campos

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