Sometimes you may hear people claiming that the residents of the 50 States should have a say in whether or not Puerto Rico should become a State. Is this a reasonable requirement?
First, let’s see what the Constitution says:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1
This means that Congress has the authority and responsibility to determine if a new state should be admitted, whether it is a territory or part of an existing state. It is not determined by popular vote of people in any existing state or states. Rather, the elected representatives of the people in Congress act for the people of the states in admitting new states. If a new state is formed from existing states the elected representatives of the people in the state legislature act for the people.
The purpose of U.S. constitutional federalism is to enable the government to make laws and act through a representative process rather than by popular referendum, although referendum is relied on by some states on issues of popular public interest. Statehood is a national issue for Congress to decide, and no single state has a separate interest unless the new state is being formed from within that state.
Readers may recall and be familiar with the political gambit of Forgottonia, a region of 16 counties in Illinois who proposed statehood as a way of getting more attention at the state and national levels for local interests. That region of Illinois could never become a state without the permission of the state legislature, but that separatist movement was seen as something in the nature of a political stunt, and neither the state legislature nor Congress took it seriously enough to act on the idea.
In contrast, there have been some separatist movements in states very serious and determined to make sections of states become new states themselves: including Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, and West Virginia. It wasn’t always easy for them to get the agreement of their parent states, but once they got that agreement, that was all the permission they needed to have. That is all the Constitution requires.
But is there precedent? Have other states required a poll or a popular vote in one or more neighboring states or all states when a territory has been admitted as a state or when a state was formed within a state? The simple answer: no. A vote in a territory or a part of a state that will become a state is democratic self-determination and consent of the people concerned, but a vote by people from other states would give people already possessing the right of consent to determine the status and rights of others who do not yet have that right.
Many states have run into controversy on their path to statehood, but the people of the other states don’t get to vote on the question. Again, they have representatives in Congress who take their wishes into account when they make decisions, and that is how their voices are heard. If you live in one of the 50 states, you can contact your legislators to let them know that Puerto Rico’s status matters to you.