Democrats increasingly believe that the American electoral system is skewed against them. But with a bare majority in the House and a “tiebreaker majority” in the Senate, and facing congressional midterm elections expected to boost the out party, their window to make any long-lasting changes to that system could close in 18 months.
Most of the solutions that they tout to fix this have no bipartisan support. The massive election reform and voting rights bill H.R. 1 has become anathema on much of the Right, and D.C. statehood faces united opposition from Republicans as well as potential constitutional complications.
But there is one structural reform to American politics that has bipartisan support, with the backing of politicians ranging from Elise Stefanik, who might soon replace Liz Cheney in House GOP leadership, to Jamie Raskin, the impeachment manager in Donald Trump’s post-Jan. 6 trial for inciting the attack on the Capitol. It is Puerto Rican statehood.
Admitting the Caribbean commonwealth that has been part of the United States since 1898 would add two senators and five members of the House. In the analysis of Democratic data scientist David Shor, “the impact of Puerto Rico statehood on [Democrats’] chance of holding the House is only a little bit smaller than ending partisan gerrymandering.”
So, what’s the holdup? Some of the most ardent opposition to Puerto Rican statehood comes from the Left.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the debate over Puerto Rico’s status has become a primarily intra-Democratic fight, one that doesn’t fall along neat ideological lines and divides the four Democrats of Puerto Rican heritage within the caucus. Darren Soto of Florida and Ritchie Torres of New York support it, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez, both of New York, oppose the proposals.
The debate over Puerto Rico’s status is bound up in the island’s unique status and its heated politics. Puerto Rico became part of the U.S. in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and essentially became a colony. For its first 20 years as an American possession, Puerto Ricans didn’t have citizenship. In the early 1950s, it was granted a more defined status as a commonwealth (or free associated state in Spanish). Puerto Rico had its own constitution that in many ways paralleled that of a U.S. state. Its officials were locally chosen and not subject to federal appointment like other territories. However, it had no federal representation. Puerto Ricans living on the island did not pay federal income taxes, and their only voice on Capitol Hill was a nonvoting resident commissioner.
This sufficed for decades. There were still furious debates over Puerto Rico’s future. The two main political parties on the island, the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, were divided on the question of status (the former is pro-statehood, and the latter is pro-commonwealth). But the status quo was viable.
Until it wasn’t.
First, a debt crisis led to the takeover of the island’s finances by a congressionally established fiscal control board in 2016, which can override the island’s own elected officials. Then, Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. It devastated the island and left nearly 3,000 dead and $90 billion in damage in its wake. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans left the island for the mainland, while those who stayed remained without electricity for periods as long as a year. At the same time, then-President Trump repeatedly stalled federal funds for the island’s recovery.
There have been a number of plebiscites on the island over its future. November 2020 saw, for the first time, a referendum on a clean yes-or-no question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State?” It won by a margin of 52.5% to 47.5%. For the first time, there was a clear, simple yes-or-no vote on status, albeit a nonbinding one. And, of course, it did not resolve a thing.
Instead, the battlefield shifted to two competing bills on Capitol Hill. The first would grant Puerto Rico statehood after one final, binding referendum, along the same model through which Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union in the 1950s. The second is more amorphous. It is entitled the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act and would create a “semi-permanent” status convention to which Puerto Ricans would elect delegates in order to negotiate with a congressional commission on the island’s future. The results would be subject to a ranked-choice referendum in which every option except the status quo would be on the ballot and would bind Congress to the result.
For statehood supporters, it’s time. “We saw a historic election in November,” Soto, the Florida congressman, told the Washington Examiner. “There was a simple yes-or-no question for statehood.” He contrasted it with past votes. “A majority of the voters were for it in a high-turnout general election, which was far different than some of the other plebiscites, where they were more complicated and confusing, or it was a low-turnout election.”
In their view, the effort by statehood opponents to ignore the plebiscite is on par with the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Torres told the Washington Examiner, “The people have spoken, and we in Congress have an obligation to legislate what the people voted for. If the people had rejected statehood with the plebiscite, then I would accept the outcome of the election.”
He added, “As far as I’m concerned, Congress should take the same deferential approach to the plebiscite in Puerto Rico as it has historically done to the electoral slates in each state. When the people of the states have spoken, and when a state legislature sends Congress a certified slate of electors, the proper role of Congress is to accept the outcome. You should apply the same standard of deference to the plebiscite in Puerto Rico.”
However, opponents of the statehood bill see the vote as illegitimate, a ploy by statehood supporters that did not offer the full range of options to vote. In an April hearing on the topic held by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Velazquez argued, “This should be about a process that respects the will of the people, not try to stack the deck or use millions of dollars to skew the outcome.”
To some, the closeness of the vote meant the outcome lacked a clear mandate from the people. At the hearing, Democrat Ed Case of Hawaii said that while he was strongly inclined toward the statehood proposal, he was worried about how slim the majority for statehood was and whether that was enough to move forward. He noted that in 1940, 20 years before Hawaii became a state, a nonbinding statehood referendum got 2-to-1 support, a far more overwhelming margin than the 5-point win in the 2020 Puerto Rico vote.
Former congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a supporter of Puerto Rican independence, railed against what he viewed as a dishonest campaign to the Washington Examiner. He described statehood supporters as making cynical promises of free money rather than civil rights. As he described the campaign for statehood, “you all qualify for the earned income tax credit. You get $2,500 as soon as we become a state every year for the rest of your life, and you pay no federal taxes because you don’t have the income to pay taxes.”
A convention process, in contrast, would allow a broad, free-ranging discussion about a variety of status options ranging from statehood to independence. “Self-determination in Puerto Rico shouldn’t come down to a simple ballot referendum,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez on May 5, calling it “a process that states use to resolve questions like dog racing or cannabis & are easily challenged. Determination of status, citizenship, and decolonization merit a constitutional convention.” The problem is that there really are not a lot of options available.
Constitutionally, there are only three choices: statehood, independence, or territorial status. As a letter by a number of distinguished law professors noted, “In short, as long as Puerto Rico is neither a state of the Union nor an independent nation, it will remain a territory” and thus subject to Congress’s plenary power.
Another possibility would be what’s called a “compact of free association agreement,” a status held by three former U.S. territories, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. This is a subset of independence that includes the three nations in many domestic programs (for example, all three are currently vaccinated through the U.S. government) as well as protection by the U.S. military. All three are sovereign independent nations that have then ceded some of their authority to the United States by treaty. But this status would have to be reached through negotiation and then ratified by both parties.
But opponents of a convention see it as Congress once again dictating the process, not the people of Puerto Rico. Speaking to the Washington Examiner, Torres had similar words for those who don’t think the referendum was good enough: “Congress should leave it to the people to decide, both the substance and process of their own decision-making about status. Who are we to say that the plebiscite in November 2020 does not count? Who are we to delegitimize the democratic process in Puerto Rico? And then we have the audacity to call it decolonization. I feel like I live in an Orwellian universe.”
Which raises the question: How would Puerto Rico vote? Just because its admission would make the American political system more representative of the electorate doesn’t necessarily mean it would support Democrats. First, Puerto Rico’s politics are different than those on the mainland. The pro-statehood NPP has members who identify as Republicans and those who identify as Democrats nationally, while the pro-status-quo PDP’s members identify as Democrats. The current NPP Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon caucuses with the Republicans and has supported Trump.
Although Puerto Rican statehood has been a mainstay in the Republican Party platform for generations (including the one that Trump was elected on in 2016), Trump’s hostile attitudes toward Puerto Rico have infected others in the GOP. Mitch McConnell characterized Puerto Rican statehood as part of an agenda of “full-bore socialism” in 2019. Former Arizona Sen. Martha McSally claimed that Puerto Rican statehood would add two Democratic senators in perpetuity.
Gonzalez argued that Puerto Rican support was key for the election of Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott in Florida. In her view, “they’re true, direct examples of what the Puerto Rican vote can do if we do have leaders on our side and people sponsoring statehood.” She noted in contrast that the supporters of the self-determination act included Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. “I think that’s the best way to tell you who is more conservative and who is more progressive.”
This was an attitude shared by Gutierrez, who warned: “The statehood party in Puerto Rico — the New Progressive Party has no progressivism to it whatsoever. They are extremely homophobic, anti-women, anti-workers, and anti-union, and this is a party that does not respect the human rights of the people of Puerto Rico. They use very cavalierly the N-word on floor speeches, and the House of Representatives in Puerto Rico and their leaders in the media have been fired for using racist terms to describe black people.”
The former Illinois congressman noted that the leading individual vote-getter in Puerto Rico in 2020 was Gonzalez, who was “Donald Trump’s ally.” He thought Puerto Rican statehood could flip control of Congress back to the GOP before the midterm elections. “Do you really want two more Trumpers as two more U.S. senators sent to the U.S. Senate today? Do you want five more members of Congress so that you could change the majority?” He added, “They think like Donald Trump, they act like Donald Trump. They are really Trumpers, disguising themselves as Democrats.”
Torres disagrees, describing himself as “optimistic that Puerto Rican statehood would produce two Democratic U.S. senators and five Democratic members of Congress.”
Shor’s analysis was slightly more nuanced. “The most likely outcome is that both [Puerto Rican] parties promise to caucus with Democrats in Congress,” although they would be more socially conservative than the rest of the caucus and less loyal to the party line.
Such speculation remains a parlor game. After all, it was infamously assumed that, upon their admission to the union, Alaska would vote Democratic and Hawaii would vote Republican; the opposite has happened over the past half-century.
What happens next? Soto told the Washington Examiner he thought a compromise was likely to emerge that would ditch the constitutional convention for a plebiscite that included multiple options selected through either a plurality or ranked-choice vote. From his perspective, there was a strong desire for compromise while noting “the idea of a convention was not well-received.”
The debate isn’t just about politics. There are key questions of identity too. After all, Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking island with a national identity (including its own Olympic team). Its independence movement was suppressed in the late 1940s, spurring small-scale uprisings and even an assassination attempt against President Harry Truman and a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five members of Congress wounded. This history weighs on advocates of independence, but they also use it to bolster their argument: A history of government repression has artificially reduced support for the island, they say. They reject statehood as another form of this repression.
As Gutierrez characterizes it: “Why do you want to impose upon me the elimination of hundreds of years of the creation of what today is a Puerto Rican nation? It may be a colony of the United States, but Puerto Rico is a distinct political, cultural, linguistic [entity].”
But more than identity, the island is also in crisis. To Torres, the answer is obvious. “Both sides agree that Puerto Rico should have more resources. Statehood would lead to more resources. Both sides agree that the Financial Control Board should be abolished. Statehood would abolish the Financial Control Board. So, the goals that both sides share are best achieved by one status option, which is statehood.”
In the meantime, he argues, “the status quo will only deepen the suffering of Puerto Rico.”
Ben Jacobs is a political reporter in Washington, D.C.
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