On Sunday, voters in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory located in the Caribbean Sea, will head to the polls to determine whether they want to formally request to become a U.S. state. The vote marks only the fifth time since 1967 Puerto Ricans will vote on the island's legal status, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
Voters will have three options to choose from on the ballot: remain a U.S. territory, become an independent nation, or statehood.
The island’s current fiscal crisis — it has amassed $73 billion in debt it can’t pay for — and prolonged economic recession could push voters to call for statehood this time around. If they do, a commission will lobby U.S. lawmakers to change Puerto Rico’s status.
Because Sunday’s vote is nonbinding, Congress will have the ultimate authority to determine whether to move the process forward. Under the current Congress, it’s unlikely Puerto Rico would gain much traction, but a vote by Puerto Ricans on Sunday in favor of statehood could set the country on a remarkable course that could end with Puerto Rico as the 51st state and conservatives in Congress in a heap of trouble.
Puerto Rico, an island nation of about 3.4 million people, has a predominantly left-wing voter base that is likely to vote in favor of the Democratic Party should the island become a state. Based on its population size, it’s expected Puerto Rico would receive five representatives in the House. This isn’t enough to tip the scales in the Democrats’ favor, but the two Senate seats guaranteed to every state very well might, making it incredibly difficult for Republicans to command the Senate in the future. (Remember that every vote in the Senate is vital, because 60 votes are still needed to end debate on most legislation.)
Given these problems, it’s incredibly unlikely Republicans, who now control Congress, would consider adding Puerto Rico without also adding another conservative-leaning state to balance things out, but the next time Democrats have control of Congress — which could occur within the next four years — they would have a powerful motivation to add Puerto Rico as America’s next state, and they don’t need the president’s approval to do so.
If Puerto Rico does call for statehood, Democrats will also likely enjoy massive political advantages prior to ever taking control of Congress. Liberals could use the opportunity to slam Republicans who oppose making Puerto Rico a state, accusing them of bigotry and saying they’re uncompassionate. It might also help to serve as an election rallying cry for 2018 for the Democratic Party’s base.
Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have been unwilling to call for statehood or independence, in large part because the people there have a fiercely independent spirit but realize they have gained significant advantages from being under the protection of the United States, both militarily and economically. The substantial economic crises gripping the island today, however, may very likely change all that.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, the current governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, who has only been in office since January, has made statehood a primary focus of his administration. Other key members in Puerto Rico’s political climate are also touting the tremendous advantages of becoming a state, which would almost certainly involve some sort of a bailout of the island’s debt.
“The people of Puerto Rico cherish our relationship with the United States,” said Jenniffer González-Colon, the island’s nonvoting member of Congress, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We hope to strengthen that relationship” by gaining statehood.