The prospects of statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have never been greater, but many significant obstacles loom.

The Democratic-led House has already passed a statehood bill for the District, the first time such a bill has ever been approved by a chamber of Congress.

And support for statehood has been growing in Puerto Rico.

“We see both Puerto Rico and D.C. statehood surging into the mainstream debate over the past couple of weeks in particular with the upcoming plebiscite in November, statements by Vice President Biden … and it’s come into greater focus with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), referring to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

To be sure, statehood for either Puerto Rico or the District is no sure thing. Democrats will need to win the race for the White House and take a majority in the Senate. Democrats would then have to do away with the legislative filibuster, a potential move that divides the party.

The bill that was passed by the House in June — H.R. 51 — doesn’t eliminate the District of Columbia, but rather shrinks it to a much smaller area that includes many of the buildings where the federal government conducts official business. The remainder of what is currently D.C. would become the 51st state.

Even if Democrats win back the Senate and the White House and H.R. 51 were to be enacted, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution would need to be repealed, a change that would require ratification by at least 38 states, which would be a daunting challenge.

In the Senate, three Democrats — Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — as well as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, have not sponsored the legislation.

But in a sign of how things have changed, there is a lot of talk about the issue in 2020. In 2009, after Barack Obama became the first Black president and Democrats had a commanding majority in the Senate, statehood was not a priority for the party.

Paul Strauss, one of D.C.’s shadow senators, attributed the difference to “the tremendous momentum that we have in the country in support of this equality. D.C. statehood used to be considered kind of a local, fringe issue and now it is a mainstream, national issue.”

While D.C. statehood has broad political support within the District, statehood for Puerto Rico is more complicated and divisive on the island. The Puerto Rico statehood process would be simpler than in Washington, requiring only a majority in both chambers and the president’s signature, following the processes that made Alaska and Hawaii states in the late 1950s.

But unlike D.C., statehood is not overwhelmingly supported in Puerto Rico. Opponents say statehood would be the culmination of a colonial process that would rob Puerto Rico of its national identity, and they prefer to explore other options, including independence.

“You cannot compare statehood for D.C. and statehood for Puerto Rico. D.C. is not a colony, Puerto Rico is a colony,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who last month introduced a bill for Puerto Rico to hold a convention to decide its best status option.

Republican lawmakers have increasingly used opposition to D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood as they seek to keep their narrow majority in the Senate.

Democrats want to make “the swamp itself, Washington, D.C., America’s 51st state,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during an appearance at the Republican National Convention. “With two more liberal senators, we cannot undo the damage they’ve done.”

The GOP’s staunch opposition to D.C. statehood has often been called by critics an attempt to suppress and disenfranchise minority voters. When the push for D.C. statehood began in the 1980s, the District’s population was majority Black. D.C. is now about 47 percent Black, but still a majority-minority city.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) told The Hill, “[Republicans] are very afraid because more than 90 percent of the Democrats in the Senate support D.C. statehood [and] they are in strong danger of losing the Senate.”

“[Statehood] has come into greater focus with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as we look at what kind of democracy we’ll have within a couple of years,” said Soto, the first Floridian representative of Puerto Rican origin.

While a state in D.C. would almost certainly add two Democrats to the Senate, it’s less clear if that would be the case in Puerto Rico.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) said Republicans who think Puerto Rico would consistently yield two Democratic senators simply don’t understand the island’s residents.

“They don’t know how conservative Hispanics and Puerto Ricans are, and they don’t know the number of Puerto Ricans who have fought in the armed forces, and they don’t know the platform of the Republican Party, which for the last 45 years has supported statehood,” said González.

“I am convinced Puerto Rico will be a competitive state,” she added.

Some Republicans support Puerto Rican statehood, including Florida’s two senators, as well as Reps. Don Young (Alaska) and Brian Fitzpatrick(Pa.), who co-sponsored a resolution introduced by Soto to recognize Puerto Rico’s upcoming statehood referendum.

Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have come out in favor of allowing Puerto Ricans to choose statehood, partly out of deference to the solidly pro-statehood Puerto Rican diaspora in central Florida.

Most Democrats support changing Puerto Rico’s status, but there is opposition on the left wing of the party, including Norton.

“Puerto Rico has two problems. One, it is bankrupt, so the United States has had to pump money in it just to keep it going. In order to become a state, you [have] to … show that you’re fully able to support yourself,” she said. “The second is, Puerto Ricans haven’t yet taken a vote on statehood.”

Puerto Rico is having a referendum in November on the issue, but opponents of statehood call the entire exercise “a sham,” accusing the territory’s ruling pro-statehood party — a coalition of centrist Democrats and the island’s Republicans — of holding the vote to boost its turnout in November’s general election.

“The yes or no vote on statehood is a sham,” said former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who now lives in Puerto Rico and favors independence.

The right of all Americans to vote for the U.S. president – whose actions impact those living in the territories as much as it does the lives of citizens in the states – was discussed early Wednesday morning.

It was the first time that voting rights for Americans living in the U.S. territories was discussed by the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections. The subcommittee has tackled common voting rights’ issues, like voter identification and voting by mail.

Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Del. Gregorio Sablan, Del. Stacey E. Plaskett of the Virgin Islands and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico took part in the discussion.

San Nicolas said he’s hoping the collective testimonies make a strong case for the territories to have a clear path forward. He noted that while Puerto Rico should clearly have its territorial status reconciled as either a full state or an independent country, Guam and the other smaller territories “certainly need more representation to include delegates to the Senate and an electoral college vote similar to that extended to Washington D.C.”

Equal protection, representation

During the hearing, San Nicolas said the lack of voting rights means “the framework of our constitution, and the case law of our courts, have not caught up to what we today would expect to be an America standard – that every American living in America should be equally protected and represented as Americans.”

“The challenge before us today is how to address this,” he stated. “History has shown that it was never the intent of this republic to perpetually maintain territories. Every American territory before 1898 had a very distinct path into the union, and what was consistent in all paths was a deliberate attempt to invest in their eventual inclusion.”

Sablan noted that the CNMI was able to hold an election after the second worst typhoon in U.S. history.

“If the people of the Marianas can hold an election even after the second worst typhoon in United States history, surely America can maintain this cornerstone of our democracy even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” Sablan said.

One other common thread among the territories is the high military enrollment numbers. González-Colón noted that these men and women who serve the flag have no voice in Congress and have no ability to vote for the president.

“I represent 3.2 million citizens with the same right as American citizens in the states, but we and the residents of other territories live in jurisdictions that constitutionally cannot have votes in the government that not only makes our national laws but can and sometimes does intervene in local laws,” she said. “Congress has this power because of the constitution territorial clause, which makes Congress our super-territorial Legislature. Congress can delegate the exercise of self-government to a territory but it still ultimately possesses the power to govern us.”

-Jenniffer González Colón

‘Race and racism’

Plaskett also noted another facet she sees in the denial of voting rights.

“One cannot discuss voting rights and disenfranchisement in the territories without talking about race and racism,” Plaskett said.

“The unincorporated territories of the Virgin Islands of the United states, a possession, is the most structural example of systemic racism. That system permeates the legal status, as well as the economic, political and educational structure that keeps the disparity between us and the mainland. It manifests itself as a position of exclusion of the people living in the Virgin Islands from equitable treatment.”

Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, a nonpartisan public interest law organization that works to advance equality and voting rights in U.S. territories, called the discussion historic, in that it elevates discussion within Congress as well as civil rights organizations.

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