Obviously, statehood for Puerto Rico is a political decision. Any decision about Puerto Rico’s political status is inescapably a political decision in that sense. But statehood has often been a political, and in fact a partisan, decision. 32 territories have already become states. Sometimes the decision to admit a territory as a state generated very little controversy. Alabama, for example, was quickly admitted without even a referendum.
But there have also been states that received support for their admission because of the way they were expected to vote in upcoming elections.
Puerto Rico can be expected to be a swing state once it becomes the 51st state, and statehood for Puerto Rico has bipartisan support in Congress right now. Nonetheless, there are ill-informed Republicans in Congress who claim that admitting Puerto Rico would guarantee two more Democratic senators. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, said that statehood for Puerto Rico would “dilute our power,” presumably referring to the power of Republicans.
Publicly denying equal rights to more than 3,000,000 U.S. citizens for fear that they would vote for the opposing party seems un-American and anti-democratic, but quite a few states were admitted right before elections in hopes of keeping Republicans in power. Oregon, Nevada, and West Virginia were admitted just in time to vote for President Lincoln in two elections.
When he ran for reelection during the Civil War, Lincoln’s government looked to Nevada. “Faced with the demise of the Union, Lincoln and the Republicans looked for every advantage possible within the law,” Kyle Sammin wrote in The New Chicagoan. “Union soldiers were encouraged to participate in absentee balloting, where states allowed it, and where it was not allowed, units from swing states were cycled home for a week to let the men vote in person. Republicans also saw an opportunity to scoop up three electoral votes through the admission of a new state: Nevada.” Nevada at this point did not have the 60,000 residents that were traditionally required for statehood.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington were all admitted under a single enabling act in 1899. Montana and Idaho followed in 1890. “This addition of 12 new senators and 18 new electors to the Electoral College was a deliberate strategy of late-19th-century Republicans to stay in power after their swing toward Big Business cost them a popular majority,” says The Atlantic. “The strategy paid dividends deep into the future; indeed, the admission of so many rural states back then helps to explain GOP control of the Senate today, 130 years later.” The president at the time, a Republican, lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.
Michigan was admitted with the expectation that it would be a Democratic-leaning state. At the time, the other popular party was the Whig party; the Republican Party did not exist yet.
Florida was also admitted in part because it was a Democratic-leaning territory.
Splitting the difference
Hawaii and Alaska were admitted as a pair with the expectation that Hawaii would vote Republican and Alaska would vote Democratic. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true.
Many other states have changed their party allegiance over the years. Puerto Rico, where the important party divisions are not about Democrats and Republicans, will be open to whichever party can best share its message with the voters of the Island. Puerto Rico should be admitted as a state in order to provide justice and equality to the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, regardless of party preference.