Crowley: Puerto Rico’s voters prefer statehood; admittance would change dynamics of Congress

Election Day was a good day for those on my side of politics. Victories piled up on every level, from state referenda to the presidency.

These celebrations, however justified, have distracted the American people and the media from what might be one of the most historically significant votes that took place last November: Puerto Rico’s vote for statehood.

The vote, called a plebiscite, was non-binding, but showed that 61 percent of Puerto Rico’s voters preferred statehood to other options.

Just recently, the White House responded to the vote, emphasizing that the will of the people of Puerto Rico ought to guide the issue moving forward.

As with all aspects of politics, this ballot is not without its critics, who say the structure of the vote’s questions was intentionally confusing and emphasized that it was non-binding.

The plebiscite came in two parts. The first asked whether voters supported maintaining the status Puerto Rico currently has. Fifty-four percent – a clear majority – said no.

Part two is the one getting all the news. It asked voters what status they would like the island to become, in the event that it was to change at all. The question was asked of all voters, even those who previously expressed a desire to stay as a U.S. commonwealth.

This distinction is merely one of process, and the vote clearly outlined a path to statehood that most Puerto Ricans would be happy with.

After all, Puerto Ricans are already American citizens. They use American passports, pay most of the same federal taxes and even receive social security benefits. The only difference is their lack of representation – an issue international organizations like the United Nations have been trying to solve worldwide for several generations.

With all of its complexities, the plebiscite left continental American observers reeling. Questions churned on the Internet: how could statehood change the balance in Congress? Would such a move affect the economy? And perhaps most importantly, what would the flag look like with 51 stars?

If admitted, Puerto Rico would change the balance of Congress. It would receive two senators, which would make a total of 102, and would receive five or six representatives. But, since the number of representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives is capped at 435, those five or six seats would have to come from other states in order to maintain proportional representation.

Since the population leans liberal in ideology, many of these new members of Congress would side with Democrats if elected. This would make statehood more partisan than it might otherwise be.

Admittance would also increase the overall cost of Medicare and Medicaid, since Puerto Ricans would be eligible for those services. It is also widely believed the economy on the island itself would improve, as they currently have a roughly 13 percent unemployment rate. The effects on the rest of the economy are up for debate, but would likely be minimal.

Many creative flag designs have started circulating. But, if we know anything about Congress, we know they’d choose the most boring option – a computer algorithm might even arrange the stars.

Besides Puerto Rico itself, Congress is the critical piece here.  In order to add another state, both the House and the Senate must approve the measure with a two-thirds vote.

Considering many members would be hurt politically by such a proposal – Republicans would see their power wane slightly and Democrats in certain states might see their district disappear – the supermajority required would be highly unlikely.

With that said, it couldn’t hurt political junkies to fantasize about what might happen. Just don’t invest in that new flag quite yet.

Colin Crowley is a senior political science and philosophy major. His column appears online weekly. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter at @colincrowley.


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