Puerto Rican Statehood More Likely Now, Potentially Altering the Senate

Alamy

The U.S. could be on the verge of getting a brand-new state, complete with two new senators. And those two senators could help shape the Senate electorate for the foreseeable future. 

“Incoming Senate leader Chuck Schumer, as well as (Georgia Senator-elect) Jon Ossoff and [then]. President-elect Joe Biden have said they support statehood for Puerto Rico,” said José A. Cabrera, chairman of the Puerto Rico Star Project, an organization pushing for Puerto Rican statehood. “Biden said during their campaign he supported statehood if Puerto Ricans made a decision to do so, but Puerto Ricans have already made a decision (to do so) on Nov. 3. The incoming government, both at the executive and the legislative, have put their word that they want to push forward on statehood, and even influential Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia supports it.” 

Puerto Rico is a bigger island than you may imagine with a bigger population than you probably expected. The island is currently home to more than 3 million people, which is more than twice that of Hawaii, and three times as much as Rhode Island. (It beats out the population Mississippi, for that matter.) Despite this, the island has always been designated by U.S. law merely as a territory. This means islanders can vote to select their local politicians but cannot cast a vote for an American president in the November elections. They also do not have representation in the U.S. Senate. 

That changes when a Puerto Rican moves to the U.S. mainland. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, despite their diminished voting rights, and they can register to vote for president, if they move to the mainland. Registering to vote under those circumstances is actually as simple for an islander as any U.S. citizen moving from Alabama to Atlanta. If the island becomes a state, however, the whole population will virtually “be moving to the mainland,” and that’s a lot of votes. 

Puerto Rican voting is worth talking about because come out in droves. I mean, these folk looove  some democracy. Turnout on the island is generally higher than it is for presidential elections in the rest of the 50 states, despite the fact that no island-dwelling Puerto Rican even has an official say in things. For most of the late 20th century, voter turnout there was actually 50 percent higher than it was for us indifferent malcontents on the mainland. 

It probably helps that voting is a matter of cultural pride for Puerto Rico, with a vigor matched only by the apparent ease of the voting process on the island. Unlike the rest of the U.S., PR has effortless registration, requiring only the presentation of a state, federal or local government-issued ID and a utility bill proving your place of residence. Registrants then receive an Electoral Identification Card, which is the only thing required for them to vote. Their effortless registration and voting process has plenty to do with the fact that island leaders didn’t spend 200 years trying to discourage a suppressed, race-based minority from political participation 

The racial make-up of the island is worth mentioning. If the island becomes a state under the incoming Senate, it would arguably be one of the brownest states (including Mississippi with its 36 percent Black population) to join the union. It would also be a state that speaks very little English. English is one of the official languages of the island, but less than 20 percent of the island speaks it fluently. 

Knowing the voting habits of many Black and brown people in the U.S., it’s easy to see why Republicans in the House and Senate might be leery of bringing in a new state that can dump two new Democrats in the Senate and cost the GOP the Senate for the immediate future. Puerto Ricans generally vote for the Democratic candidate in presidential elections, even if their vote doesn’t mean anything. The island went to Clinton in 2016, and Biden last year. Conservative rags like Newsmax are already wringing their hands over the likelihood of two new Democratic senators from Puerto Rico, and an additional two from D.C., if both achieve statehood under the incoming Senate. “Cataclysm If Biden Makes DC, Puerto Rico States,” say the headlines, but Cabrera warns that packing a whole island into one political spectrum does a huge disservice to islanders. 

“No single state is destined to a particular political fate,” Cabrera told Lighthouse. “… A plurality identifies as Democrats, but if you ask further on their policy views you have a bunch of Democrats in Puerto Rico who are pro-life, they’re pro-gun, they’re anti-tax and anti-big government, which doesn’t line up with modern Democrats. … I always tell people that if the Republicans don’t do anything, or if the Republicans reject statehood and make it impossible, Puerto Ricans on the island will not forget that. So Republicans can turn Puerto Rico into a blue state if they reject statehood.” 

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