When discussing politics in the United States, the conversation is usually relegated to a handful of swing states and heavily populated areas. The smaller states get to have their say as well, via representatives in the House and Senate and by throwing their electoral college votes behind the candidate of their choice. But there are millions of Americans who live within the borders of the nation without having any official influence on the process aside from nonbinding votes and the occasional non voting member.
The most populous of these territories is Puerto Rico. With around 3.5 million people, it has more people than 21 states — larger than Iowa, one of the most politically influential states in the union. The questions of statehood for Puerto Rico is a complicated one that comes around once every few years, yet it still remains a territory. There have been five votes since the island joined the United States, each time statehood performing better than the last, yet none are binding, as gaining statehood requires more than just the approval of a territory’s people — it requires an act of Congress.
Congress is loath to act when the desires of a territory’s populace are unknown, however. In the case of Puerto Rico, statehood has been the most popular option in 2012 and 2017 — with a full 97 percent of voters putting in for statehood on June 11. Every vote has been dogged by controversy, however, and boycotts of the referenda are commonplace, and the most recent vote saw fewer than one-quarter of voters weigh in on the nonbinding resolution.
The next step would be for the Puerto Rican government to draft an official state constitution and petition Congress for admission. Congress has no obligation to admit a state and has, in fact, turned down numerous territories’ petitions. Complicating matters for the island is that Congress historically admits states in pairs or more for political balance — a practice dating back to the Missouri Compromise. In the most recent case, Hawaii and Alaska were admitted jointly due to the belief that one would be safely Republican-leaning and the other Democratic. Currently, there is no balancing territory for Puerto Rico, and its political leanings when translated to the mainland parties can be difficult to glean.
The two most popular parties, each garnering between 45 and 48 percent of the vote in any given election, are the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the New Progressive Party (PNP), the major dividing line between them is the issue of statehood or remaining a territory. Within either of these parties, however, the membership goes for either the GOP or the Democratic Party when dealing with issues of national concern..
On the one hand, socialist, progressive, and even communist groups are very strong in Puerto Rico when it comes to issues of economics. Reliance on government programs is ever-growing, and the federal government’s unwillingness to broker deals on the island’s debts are what make statehood so appealing. A bailout is desperately needed, but expressly forbidden by federal law for Puerto Rico for as long as it remains a territory. As a state, no such prohibition exists, and a bailout would not only be likely but legally mandated. An estimated 75 percent of Puerto Ricans lean toward the Democratic Party on economic issues, with only about 20 percent for the Republicans.
Economics are not the only factor when choosing a political party, however. Social issues are a major issue here and the population of Puerto Rico is generally more religious than most other US states — and that religion is primarily a conservative form of Catholicism.
LGBTQ rights are unpopular on the island, with it only becoming legal via the Supreme Court decision ending legal discrimination against same-sex marriage nationwide. Transgender rights are virtually nonexistent, a pending federal lawsuit allowing people to correct their birth certificates was just filed in April of 2017. Abortion is generally frowned upon, but is legal under federal protections, though the battle continues for both sides, just like on the mainland. Fortunately, racial politics on the island are less volatile than in the states thanks to the much more homogenous and mixed race ancestry of the inhabitants, but historically, like most places in the US, minorities, especially people of color, have been on the receiving end of abuses.
Despite the large latino population on Puerto Rico, President Trump has garnered some support here — he finished in second place to Marco Rubio in the primaries with 14 percent of the vote, and the island doesn’t participate in the general election. His recent Tweets blasting the island for asking for a bailout likely won’t win him many supporters here, though he has expressed support for statehood in the past.
The projection for now is that the island would likely tip toward the Democrats in a general election and with no conservative option for a balancing state to admit at the same time, it seems unlikely that Congress would vote in favor of admission at this time. But the march toward statehood for Puerto Rico seems to be an inevitable one, it just may take a little longer than most others.
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