Forget the moon. Despite the fact that former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was eying statehood beyond the stratosphere, there are far more, very real possibilities for expanding the Union here on Earth. And these changes could be coming within the next year.

This November, perhaps more exciting than the prospect of a new president is that of a new flag. Puerto Rico is preparing for a two-part referendum on its status. But before we all go Betsy Ross on our Old Glories, we might have reason to pause. In what will be the clearest expression of Puerto Rican sentiment since, we might be prepared for a surprisingly conservative response – Puerto Ricans will want to remain the way they are.

The way Puerto Ricans currently are is rather interesting. Puerto Ricans, long considered American citizens but with their own national and regional identity, have a unique arrangement with the mainland which allows them most of the benefits of citizenship save two distinctions: no federal representation, or right to vote for national office, and a limited taxation responsibility towards the federal government.  It is not a bad deal, offering the perks of citizenship while allowing them to foster their own identity. But in case Puerto Ricans feel otherwise, they will have the opportunity to redefine this relationship in the upcoming referendum.

A fifty-one-star flag for when we illegally annex the moon, or something like that.

The referendum is critical because there has yet to be a clear answer as to what Puerto Ricans want, leaving the Union static since the late fifties. America’s two last states, formed from the former Russian territory of Alaska and the overthrown Kingdom of Hawai’i, were admitted to the Union in 1959. We have had no new states since then. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico has had decades to mull over its status, self-determination has taken Puerto Rico an unusually long time.

The reason why is pretty straightforward: they’ve been asked some awkward, confusing questions on past plebiscites. Support for statehood has, on paper, risen from 39% in 1967 to 46.3% in 1993 and 46.5% in 1998. But prior referenda were somewhat underwhelming. For instance, commonwealth status (what Puerto Rico has now) was supported by 48.6% in 1993 (which seems reasonable), but only 0.06% in 1998. If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry – we’re comparing apples and oranges, surprisingly. In the 1998 referendum, Puerto Ricans were given a thoroughly disorienting five options for their status, with unclear definitions for each – Commonwealth (the status quo), Free Association (independence but with best-buddy status with the States), Independence (well, independence), Statehood, and None of the Above (the “Dear, Lord!” option, I guess.) Naturally, None of the Above won a majority of votes.

This time, they’re doing it right. The referendum will have two parts. Firstly, it will ask Puerto Ricans if they want to change their status. If they do, then they get to pick from Free Assocation (Palau-style), independence, or statehood. My personal prediction is that Puerto Ricans will choose to stay with what they have. Statehood isn’t as straightforward a choice as it seems – technically, a handful of American territories meet the 60,000 population threshold that, according to the Northwest Ordinance, is like the g.p.a. cutoff to apply for acceptance into the Union. And yet, there has been a new-state taboo since the ’50s. Is 50 just that nice a number?

Actually, it’s more of a question of what citizens (or, in American Samoa’s sad case, non-citizen nationals) really want, and change is not necessarily the smoothest option. We might be up for a difficult situation if Puerto Ricans only barely voted for statehood on November 6th. Unlike the typical plurality-wins sort of situation, nothing less than a supermajority-esque situation would really indicate a strong desire for any sort of status change. Take a look at some other countries – Australia’s mainland Northern Territory opted against statehood in 1998 by a slim majority vote of 51.3%. In 1995, Canada’s Quebecois were this close (49.42% wanted out) to bouncing out of the country. The status quo is safer, perhaps – in Canada’s case, had Quebec slipped out of the nation, Native Canadian populations in northern Quebec didn’t want to get pulled out of the door with the rest of the province.

Statehood can make sense in certain circumstances, though, and our newest state, Hawai’i – the only one made entirely of islands, a distinction Puerto Rico could share – offers a valuable precedent. The Kingdom of Hawai’i was originally problematically deposed in the 1890s, and President Cleveland later acknowledged America’s actions as an “act of war” against a “feeble [I can hear the anachronistic gasp, but hold on here] but friendly and confiding people”. Cleveland didn’t last long enough in the presidency to right the “substantial wrong”, however, though President Clinton said sorry eventually. Hawai’i was annexed, and its Queen, Lili’uokalani, tried for years to get it back. But by the time Hawai’i gained statehood in 1959, 94% of the state’s residents had voted for it. This is partly due to many mainland Americans with statehood sentiments moving to the islands, and due to Hawaiians wanting equal citizenship after losing many of their own in World War II. (And, a little-known fact – independence was not an option on the ballot.)

In comparison, as mentioned earlier, only 46.5% of Puerto Ricans wanted statehood in 1998. Many mainland Americans will support them in that endeavor, like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but it’s important that we let Puerto Ricans make their own decision, no matter what they decide. Despite the patriotic appeal of adding to the Union, Americans of the fifty states should be comfortable with Puerto Rico remaining the same, joining them, or even breaking free. Not that many of those options are worth worrying about, though. Puerto Rico’s unique situation is nice enough that the status quo looks to be their best bet – at least for now.

 

Graphic credit: Jacobolus, via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_flag_51_stars.svg

 

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