Pablo Manríquez, a correspondent with Latino Rebels, asked U.S. senators how they felt about Puerto Rico statehood. Some said yes to statehood, some said no, but Rep. Joe Manchin of West Virginia had a stranger response.
“That should be a referendum,” he said. “Let the people of America vote [on a] constitutional referendum.”
Manchin seriously proposes that the political status of Puerto Rico should — after three referenda in Puerto Rico during the century, each giving a clear majority result for statehood — be put to a referendum of the American people in general.
Polls in the states show that the majority of Americans, like the majority of Puerto Rico’s voters, prefer statehood over other viable options. We don’t think there is much suspense over the likely outcome of such a referendum.
But a national referendum on statehood for Puerto Rico has one big flaw: it is unconstitutional.
How are states admitted?
The U.S. Constitution clearly says that “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” If a new State is to be made up of parts of one or more existing States, then the States which are affected must agree. However, no territory has ever had to have its admission ratified by other States or by the American people as a group.
Instead, Members of Congress represent their constituents. Admitting a new state, like making other decisions within the federal government, is done by representatives of the people, not by direct votes of all the people.
The President of the United States is chosen by representatives of the states, not by a direct vote of all the people. This is the American way.
So it’s not required, but is it allowed?
We’ve met people before who believed that existing states must ratify the admission of a new state. We see this in comments at this website or our social media accounts sometimes, and we even saw it once in a news story. We won’t embarrass the site by identifying it.
This isn’t true. It has never been done. Admitting a territory as a state doesn’t even require a vote in the territory. This is entirely up to Congress.
But if Congress wants to hold such a referendum to help with the decisions, do they have that option?
Not only is the idea of a national referendum contrary to the Constitution, but the Constitution also says that States are admitted under equal footing with all existing States. The Supreme Court has made decisions in the past which did not allow extra requirements beyond those required of all states.
For example, Utah had to outlaw polygamy, as all States must, before becoming a state. However, the United States was not allowed to restrict Alabama’s jurisdiction over its waters as a condition of its admittance as a State. That was because the existing states all had jurisdiction over all the land within their borders, including the land covered by water. Alabama could not be given any extra restrictions or extra hoops to jump through.
Puerto Rico also cannot be given the extra hoop to jump through of having a national referendum on the subject.
As a territory, Puerto Rico has many decisions made by people — Members of Congress and senators — who live in the states. As a state, Puerto Rico will have the sovereignty required to make many of her own decisions, just as the current states do. But there is no reason to think that people who happen to live in a state should have a say in the political status of Puerto Rico, any more than they have a say in the political status of other states.