PUERTO RICO — Voters in Puerto Rico on Tuesday again expressed their aspirations of becoming the 51st state in the union, approving a nonbinding referendum. But will the island territory make any headway with Congress, which serves as the gatekeeper for new states?

What You Need To Know

  • Voters in Puerto Rico on Tuesday passed a nonbinding referendum saying they believe the island should be added as a state

  • The Constitution gives Congress the right to grant statehood

  • By becoming a state, Puerto Rico would be able to vote for president and have voting representatives in Congress

  • There, however, are likely to be concerns in Congress about how Puerto Rico might impact the country's political dynamics

In response to the ballot question “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the union as a state?,” 52% of voters said yes, while 48% said no. It was the sixth time Puerto Ricans voted on the issue, with its residents overwhelmingly supporting the measure in 2012 and 2017.

Statehood opponents were, however, quick to dismiss the 2017 results due to low voter turnout – just 23% – and the wording of the question, which was considered tilted to favor statehood. As a result, opposition parties that support either maintaining the status quo or independence boycotted the vote.

Tuesday’s voter turnout was 51%, according to data from the territory’s Electoral Commission. 

The Constitution gives Congress the right to grant statehood, but it does not establish a process for doing so. Typically, Congress requires the territory’s residents to pass a referendum – as Puerto Rico did this week – then representatives from the territory petition Congress for statehood. The Senate and House would need to approve the request and the president would have to sign it.

The last state admitted to the union was Hawaii in August 1959.

In 2019, a bill was introduced in the House that would have expressed Congress’ commitment to admitting Puerto Rico as a state if the territory voted yes on a referendum, but the legislation was never brought up for a vote.

By becoming a state, Puerto Rico would be able to vote for president and have voting representatives in Congress. Currently, the island’s residents, who were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, can only vote in presidential primaries and they have one congressional representative who can introduce legislation and vote on committees but does not have full voting privileges. (That representative, Jenniffer González, easily won reelection Tuesday.)

Puerto Rico, which has been a U.S. territory since 1898, also would likely receive federal funding if it became a state. 

One major obstacle toward statehood is the impact the island might have on the country’s political dynamics. Most Puerto Ricans who have moved to the U.S. mainland have historically voted Democratic, fueling Republican fears that statehood would lead to as many as seven new left-leaning lawmakers in Washington — and seven electoral votes that are likely to go blue. Some on the island, however, have argued they believe it would be a swing state.

Congress is also likely to have concerns about adding a state with such high poverty levels.

Puerto Rico also voted on a new governor Tuesday and is still awaiting the results. Pedro Pierluisi of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party held a slight lead over Carlos Delgado of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island's current status, as of late Wednesday afternoon.