By H. Harrison Coleman
As the new Senators from Georgia, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, have been seated, the U.S. Senate has become majority Democratic for the first time since 2015. There are many things on the docket for this new liberal Senate, such as minimum wage reform and the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, but another issue has sparked debate and shows of support around the nation: the possible admission of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states.
The idea of granting statehood to these two areas has gained much traction over the last few years, both among democracy enthusiasts and people who want to have state-themed playing card sets. Now, with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, their wishes might finally be granted.
The 3.2 million people who live in Puerto Rico are American citizens but cannot vote for president and have no representation in Congress (apart from a non-voting delegate). Puerto Rican statehood has long been a contested issue on the island, but this last November, a clear winner emerged after a referendum was held—Puerto Rico voted, and 52.3% made clear that they wanted Puerto Rico to become a state. This non-binding referendum, which was the sixth one held since 1952, was a clear sign that the people of Puerto Rico want statehood.
Additionally, the new governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party), which advocates for statehood, has made it a goal of his administration to join the Union as a state. His party, the PNP, is one of the largest political forces on the island.
As for Washington, D.C., the situation is different, yet they are largely in the same boat as Puerto Rico. Residents of D.C. can vote for president, as the 23rd Amendment grants them three electors in the Electoral College, but they are faced with the same quandary as Puerto Rico: they have no representation in Congress. What makes D.C.’s situation especially inflammatory for many is that unlike Puerto Rico and other territories, the residents of D.C. pay federal taxes. This has led to the famous “End Taxation Without Representation” variant of the revolutionary battle cry being a personal and present saying in D.C., with the phrase even shown on all of the District’s license plates.
The subject of whether D.C. wants to be a state is by far more cut-and-dry than Puerto Rico’s: The five referendums Puerto Rico had before its successful sixth one, held in 2020 were plagued by low voter participation, spoiler choices and even boycotts. D.C. voted on a referendum during the 2016 election on whether it wished to be a state, and the results were clear as day: 78.5% of D.C. residents want their home to be a state.
In 2019, legislation introduced by the non-voting delegate from D.C., Congresswoman Eleanor Norton-Holmes (D-DC), passed the House of Representatives. The bill, the Washington D.C. Admission Act, passed the House but died in the Senate in the desk of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But in this new session of Congress, where Democrats control both the House and the Senate, D.C. might have its day in the sun—and in Congress. The D.C. Admission Act was recently reintroduced, with a record 202 co-sponsors. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already shown her support for D.C. statehood, essentially guaranteeing that it will once again pass the House.
There are two questions when talking about the possibility of adding D.C. as the newest state, the first being whether it’s actually constitutional. While it is true that the Constitution calls for a governing district to exist, independent of the states, it provides no clarification on how large this district could be—only that it cannot be larger than 10 square miles. The D.C. Admission Act would shrink the actual District down to all the federal buildings and landmarks—the White House, National Mall, the Capitol and other government buildings would be all that remain of the District, while the city outside of it would be made into the state of Douglass Commonwealth, keeping the name Washington, D.C., intact.
The other constitutional question regarding D.C. is what to do with the 23rd Amendment, the one that grants the District 3 Electoral College votes. Under the Admission Act, the District would have no inhabitants (besides the president and the first family, who vote in their home state). However, due to the wording of the Amendment, and that it was backed up by the Supreme Court case Chiafalo vs. Washington, it’s possible for Congress to assume control of the 3 Electoral votes, and some have suggested awarding the District’s electors to the winner of the national popular vote, decreasing the likelihood of an Electoral College misfire, where the winner of the most actual votes is denied the keys to the White House.
In regards to Puerto Rico, now that it has affirmed its will to become a state, it is possible for leaders in Congress to pass legislation that would put the island up there with the rest of the nation. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden are in favor of adding Puerto Rico as a state. Additionally, conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who due to his proclivity to vote with Republicans on many issues represents a major roadblock for ambitious legislation like the admission of new states, has said he is “open” to the idea of adding D.C. and Puerto Rico as new states.
If granted statehood, the effects of D.C. and Puerto Rico in the House of Representatives would likely be minimal—D.C. would most likely only have one seat in the House, and Puerto Rico four; their influence would instead be more heavily felt in the Senate. Because each state is guaranteed two Senators, the admission of these places as states could heavily impact the evenly- divided chamber. D.C., being a major urban center and with a large population of racial minorities, would almost certainly elect two Democratic Senators, which has inspired right-wing backlash to the idea.
Who Puerto Rico might elect is more murky because the two largest parties on the island are not affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties and are mostly defined by whether they want Puerto Rico to become a state.
As the new era of American politics takes shape, issues such as granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico gain more steam. It only remains to be seen whether the action of welcoming these places into the Union will take place this year or whether this is an issue that will continue to grow and expand as the future unfolds. Either way, the future is promising for these possible new stars on our flag.