Political Animal


November 07, 2012 2:12 PM Time for Puerto Rico to Become the 51st State

By Ryan Cooper

In a little-noticed vote last night, after many failed attempts, Puerto Rico voted to officially join the United States as a full state:

The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo. Ninety-six percent of 1,643 precincts were reporting as of early Wednesday.
The second question asked voters to choose from three options, with statehood by far the favorite, garnering 61 percent. Sovereign free association, which would have allowed for more autonomy, received 33 percent, while independence got 5 percent.

The issue now moves to Congress. President Obama has promised to respect the wishes of such a vote, and both party platforms for this year agree. Gerald Ford, George Bush I, and even Reagan supported statehood. The trouble in Congress could come if some troglodyte adds an amendment forcing Puerto Rico to adopt English as the offial language or some other mischief. Republicans might filibuster the bill in the Senate, eyeing possible Democratic pickups in Congress.

On the other hand, as Kevin Drum points out, there is some real momentum behind filibuster reform for the next Congress. Also, previous bills which failed in the Senate were only about forcing a referendum in Puerto Rico to choose to change their status; with that question disposed of, a simple clean bill granting them statehood ought to be easier to pass. And with President Obama winning more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, Republicans may be finally whipped into finding some issues to win back Latino support.

But fundamentally, all this is beside the point. The United States annexed Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American war in 1898, and Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1917. They (like residents of Washington, DC and the other territories) must register for the draft and pay taxes, but cannot vote for President and are not represented in Congress.

This state of affairs, like all colonies, is a travesty of justice and an embarrassment for an allegedly democratic state. Now that the Puerto Rican people have chosen statehood freely and fairly, they should be welcomed as full fellow citizens with all speed.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • blueboy on November 07, 2012 2:32 PM:

    The same could be said of Washington D.C.

  • Stetson Kennedy on November 07, 2012 2:38 PM:

    This is an historic opportunity, but I am not at all convinced that the GOP would be willing to grant statehood to an area inclined to add 3 democrats to Congress and the electoral college.

    As blueboy notes, the same can be said of DC, but the GOP refuses to allow them a voice.

  • CharlieM on November 07, 2012 2:38 PM:

    Not going to happen.

    Not as long as a party controlling the U.S. house is held in thrall to the TeaPartheid and their fixation on anti-immigrant legislation, "English-Only" amendments, and general opposition to The Other.

    Yes, PR should be a state (or granted independence if they choose). But anyone thinking the Republican party would go along with it at this point is simply dreaming.

  • Perspecticus on November 07, 2012 2:42 PM:

    Pretty amazing news. And now, an interesting dilemma for the GOP'ers:

    Does the GOP reflexively vote against Puerto Rican statehood under the assumption that all they'd be doing is handing an island full of voters to dem Dems, or do they support statehood and try to use Puerto Rico as their beach head in trying to expand the Party of White? I'm leaning toward the former as I think they have yet to bottom out on the crazies and the nativists and the God-botherers (was that from Benen?) and the rest, but one never knows.

  • David Sanger on November 07, 2012 2:51 PM:

    And then there's the US Virgin Islands....

  • DCdrew on November 07, 2012 2:55 PM:

    This statement isn't quite accurate: "They [Puerto Ricans] (like residents of Washington, DC and the other territories) must register for the draft and pay taxes, but cannot vote for President and are not represented in Congress." In DC, we can and do vote for President (DC has 3 electoral votes... not sure when/where/how it happened but I think the language says that DC has the same number of electors as the smallest state). Puerto Rico, DC, and all territories also participate in the primary process, since that is run by each party independent of electoral college rules. Also, I believe all the territories, like DC, have non-voting representatives in the House that, at least under the Democrats, were permitted to vote in committee, but not on the floor of the house (I believe the Republicans canned that when they came to power 2 years ago).

  • Wapiti on November 07, 2012 2:58 PM:

    Stetson - Puerto Rico is about 4 million people. It would be 7 or 8 electors, I think.

    I'd think a lot of GOP holding seats with slim white majorities could be tempted to vote for statehood. Or in two years we could try again.

  • Eric k on November 07, 2012 3:20 PM:

    This will be an interesting test of how serious Reps are about facing reality. They just lost an election where 70+% of Hispanics voted against them and now they are going to vote against state hood for 4 million Hispanics who are already citizens? Who already pay taxes, etc?

  • JD on November 07, 2012 3:23 PM:

    DC residents can vote for Prez. 3 EVs for Obama last night!

  • hells littlest angel on November 07, 2012 3:26 PM:

    It would be a challenge to arrange 51 stars on the flag without a significant re-design.

    Oops. I just gave conservatives a reason to vote nay.

  • wheresthebeef on November 07, 2012 3:33 PM:

    I'd bet that the Republicans try to shore up what little support they have among Latinos by finally agreeing to work with Democrats on some sort of immigration reform, albeit a form that doesn't lead to the addition of a lot of Latino voters to the rolls. No way do they worsen their rising Electoral College disadvantage by agreeing to Statehood for Puerto Rico or D.C. They may be venal, small-minded and vicious, but they're (mostly) not stupid.

  • c u n d gulag on November 07, 2012 3:35 PM:

    Puerto Rico, AND DC!

    John Boner's finally sobered up enough to speak, and he's doing it now.

  • martin on November 07, 2012 3:39 PM:

    The cost of all those new flags is going to have to be offset by cuts in Medicare!

  • dave on November 07, 2012 3:40 PM:

    here in puerto rico, no one is talking about the plebiscite. the statehood party lost the governor, the senate and house and the capital city mayor. so if the results were to be presented to congress, the governor would surely come to lobby against statehood.

  • BillFromPA on November 07, 2012 3:42 PM:

    Mississippi should be thrilled, they'll no longer be last in English literacy.

  • DavidNOE on November 07, 2012 3:47 PM:

    Not too hard to arrange the flag: 51=3x17, so six rows alternating 8 and 9 stars would do it.

  • hells littlest angel on November 07, 2012 3:53 PM:

    Mississippi should be thrilled, they'll no longer be last in English literacy.

    Yes they will. They're the "Kan Du" state.

  • DJ on November 07, 2012 3:55 PM:

    not sure when/where/how it happened but I think the language says that DC has the same number of electors as the smallest state).

    It was the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 1961.

  • Greg on November 07, 2012 4:12 PM:

  • liam foote on November 07, 2012 5:24 PM:

    We've lived in Bayamon, just south of San Juan, for several years. Puerto Ricans at this point would be likely to support the Dems but not by a great margin. In Florida, for example, there are 592K registered Dems and 364K GOP. But in Isla del Encanto the people tend to be both fiscally and socially conservative, very religious and family oriented. The key thing is that a good number of voters here would be sophisticated with little tolerance for phonies and spin.

  • Doug on November 07, 2012 6:59 PM:

    "...like all colonies..." Ryan Cooper

    Really? Puerto Rico has had the ability to freely decide their relationship with the US for forty years, hardly a sign of colonialism. I haven't seen such knee-jerk left-wing rhetoric since the 1960s.
    When it too often was just as (il)relevant...

  • maggie on November 07, 2012 7:31 PM:

    My impression has always been that Puerto Rico would be primarily Republican.

  • DCMike on November 07, 2012 10:28 PM:

    "They (like residents of Washington, DC and the other territories) must register for the draft and pay taxes, but cannot vote for President and are not represented in Congress."

    They are mostly exempt from Federal Income Taxes on their PR earnings. DC should be so lucky.

    I would urge the Statehood for PR be joined with Statehood for DC. Or you could exempt DC from Federal Income Taxes.

    There is a reason the DC license plates say "Taxation Without Representation".

  • Ron714 on November 08, 2012 1:48 AM:

    Not so fast. It was a 2-part referendum. They clearly don't like (by a 54-46 margin) their current status. But in the second part of the referendum, a third cast blank ballots, leaving the demand for statehood muddled. Congress should present Puerto Rico with a simple choice: a referendum on statehood: Si o no. And a reminder: This is a permanent choice; if you don't think it is, just ask the members of the Confederate States of America, if you can find any.

  • PWAX on November 08, 2012 8:51 AM:

  • ewe betcha on November 08, 2012 11:38 AM:

    Someone said it would get 3 new congressmen/women. No, it would get 7, that's 5 congressmen and 2 senators. Puerto Rico has 3.98 million, its one rep in congress for every 735,000 people.

  • Carlos on November 08, 2012 12:55 PM:

    Got to agree with Ron here. Taking into account the blank ballots in part 2 of the referendum, the statehood option garnered about 45% of the vote. Seeing that practically every news outlet is touting statehood's victory, you people need to talk to someone down here before going all sensationalist.

  • giantslor on November 08, 2012 3:44 PM:

    Could they just make it part of Florida? That way we could stay with 50 states (nice even number) and more importantly, Florida would be sealed up for Democrats.

  • Frank rizzo on November 08, 2012 6:01 PM:

    As usual you liberal hacks don't let the truth gt in the way of your agenda. The big lie is that PRs pay taxes-- yeah some taxes like Medicare and SS payroll taxes. But that because they receive BENEFITS. But I guess you libtards think that they should get SS benefits just because. I can't wait till thi house of cards implodes and you liberals are literally scrambling for your miserable lives!

  • Lector on November 16, 2012 1:22 PM:

    The situation is a bit more complicated than that. A Puerto Rican friend of mine explained the situation to me, and as I understood it, things stand like this:
    The Puerto Rican economy is not capable of sustaining itself independently, due to historical colonial meddling. A lot of their income comes from US tourists, which would go down if Puerto Rico was no longer considered part of the US, and thus easier to travel to/from than other parts of the world.
    Many Puerto Ricans want their country to be independent, but know that it is not a realistic option thanks to their economy.
    Remaining a colony has many drawbacks (among them the nasty little fact that Puerto Ricans became birthright citizens, and thus eligible for the draft, right after...WWII, I believe, but don't quote me on that. It was one of out major wars, in any case.) but allows them to preserve their culture and at least hang on to some illusion of independence.
    Becoming a state has a great deal of practical benefits, like voting, representation in congress, etc, but will be accompanied by unwelcome changes, such as English being made the official language (less than 20% of Puerto Ricans are fluent) and no longer being recognized as an independent country by international events such as the Olympics or the Miss Universe pageant, both areas where they take justifiable pride in winning. They would also no longer be exempt from paying federal income tax, which would have a negative affect on the already struggling economy.
    I think, as a country, if we actually want to address the issue of Puerto Rico, we need to make the option of independence actually feasible for them, by promising (and of course, keeping that promise) that if they decide to go that route, we will support a transition to independence and the development of a robust national economy. Only then will we be able to say, if Puerto Rico chooses statehood, that they choose freely.