Puerto Rico is a territory belonging to the United States. 32 territories have already become states, and Puerto Rico can also become a state. There is a bill in Congress right now which would hold a final status vote in Puerto Rico. If statehood wins again, as it has in every referendum in this century, Puerto Rico would become a state. But who has to agree to statehood?
The people of Puerto Rico
Actually, there is no law requiring the people of a territory to agree to become a state. Several states have become states without a referendum. Alabama is one. There are also several states which voted to ratify their constitutions, even though they did not vote on whether to become a state.
Hawaii voted for statehood with 93% of votes in favor. Alaska voted 9,630 for statehood and 6,822 against. That’s a 58.5% majority voting yes.
Puerto Rico has voted for statehood three times, with majorities of 53%, 61%, and 97%.
Congress must agree to make Puerto Rico a state. Under the U.S. Constitution, only Congress can make states. A president can’t do it, the people of a territory can’t do it — just Congress.
That means that the House and the Senate must both vote to admit Puerto Rico before the territory can become a state.
This can be done with a simple majority. Very few states have ever been admitted unanimously, and often they have squeaked through with slim majorities. However, Congress has so far admitted every territory that requested statehood —eventually.
Once the Senate and the House have approved admission for Puerto Rico, the bill must go to the president’s desk for a signature. President Biden has already said that he favors statehood and will sign that bill.
In the past, some presidents have refused to sign statehood bills. President Taft refused to sign for Arizona, for example. That was in 1911. Arizona became a state in 1912. In every case when a president has refused to sign an admission bill, the territory became a state anyway. The president can change his mind, or there can be a new president.
Rep. Joe Manchin has said that all the current states should ratify Puerto Rico’s admission. This has never been done before and there is no legal foundation for doing it. States send representatives to Congress and those representatives can vote for or against admission. The states, or the people in the states, do not get to decide on the admission of new states.
People of Puerto Rican heritage living in states
It has been suggested in Congress that Puerto Ricans living in the states should get a say in the question of Puerto Rico’s admission as a state. However, people born in Ohio and living in Delaware do not get to vote in Ohio’s elections.
Puerto Ricans living in the states have full representation in Congress and can tell their representatives what they want to see in a vote on whether or not to admit Puerto Rico. If you live in a state, please let your representatives know that you want statehood for Puerto Rico.
In short, Congress decides whether or not Puerto Rico becomes a state. Other people have a stake and get a say one way or another, but only Congress gets to make the decision.