In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act granting Puerto Ricans American citizenship. Last June 11th Puerto Rico held its sixthplebiscite (popular vote) on altering its territorial relationship with the United States. This was Puerto Rico’s fifth plebiscite on this issue in twenty-six years. While 97% voted in favor of Puerto Rican statehood, as a result of political boycotts, only 23% of the eligible voters participated. Voter turnoutin previous plebiscites ranged from 60% to 78%. None of this bodes well for supporters of Puerto Rican statehood. Opponents to Puerto Rican statehood argue the vote is illegitimate, in part due to the original wording of the ballot, as well as the low voter turnout. In order to qualify for federal funding the ballot had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department called the first draft of the ballot “ambiguous and potentially misleading” as it only allowed votes for statehood or independence with no reference to retaining Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. The Puerto Rican legislature amended the ballot as requested by the DOJ. However, Puerto Rico’s decided to hold the referendum instead of allowing the DOJ to review the changes.
An additional hurdle to Puerto Rico’s statehood is its status as a United States territory. The thirty-seven territories, which later became states, were all annexed as part of the U.S. with the understanding that they would gain statehood. The Northwest Ordinance laid out the procedures for governance and eventual statehood. However, the United States acquired Puerto Rico after the Spanish American War and viewed Puerto Rico as a colonial possession with no plan to provide future statehood.
Even if its citizens want statehood, Puerto Rico is unlikely become the 51ststate in the foreseeable future. With an already racially divided electorate on the mainland, some argue that Republicans, in control of Congress, are unlikely to admit an overwhelmingly Hispanic and Spanish speaking state that potentially leans blue.