Puerto Rico: more important than the Crimson Tide

Garrett Vande Kamp – Opinion Columnist |

Last week was significant in the future of American politics for two reasons. The first is, obviously, the reelection of President Obama. The second, however, is more obscure. It was not about elections, legalizations or even college football. Rather, it had to do with a non-binding referendum on an island that does not even have a say in our nation’s politics. For now, that is.

Enter the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for over a century, and while the island’s inhabitants are U.S. citizens by birth, it not a state. Over the years, politicians of all stripes have supported the idea of Puerto Rico becoming a state. Until recently, however, public opinion seemed to indicate that Puerto Ricans preferred their current relationship with the U.S., rather than becoming a state. Referendums held in 1967, 1993 and 1998 all failed to gain enough support to push for statehood. Without backing from Puerto Ricans, the U.S. Congress—the only authority that can grant statehood—dropped the subject.

This all changed on Tuesday. For the first time in history, Puerto Ricans voted against the political status quo of their territory by a 53 to 47 percent margin. On a related referendum, 61 percent voted in favor of becoming a state.

Statehood for the island has important implications for American politics. Every state is entitled to two senators and a number of representatives in the House of Representatives. With the current population level, as analyzed by sociology professor Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Puerto Rico would have five seats in the House and seven votes in the Electoral College.

The change in the House of Representatives would be particularly interesting. The number of representatives in the House is capped at 435, and according to Poston, this number is unlikely to change if Puerto Rico becomes a state. This means that each representative Puerto Rico gains is lost from another state. Poston’s analysis indicates that Florida, Washington, Texas, California and Minnesota would all lose seats.

All of these changes seem to favor one group of people in the U.S. in particular: Democrats. John Hudak, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, claims that “[w]hile they have different party names in Puerto Rico, they’re usually one shade of Democrat or another.” By trading off with Republican-leaning states Texas and Florida and earning free seats in the Senate, Democrats could have an unprecedented edge in future partisan battles.

Of course, who knows? Perhaps a Puerto Rican state will cause the rise of a true third party, or force a platform shift for the Republican Party, allowing them to pick up Latino votes on the island and nationwide. Maybe the island won’t become a state after all; some politicians in Washington and San Juan do not like the idea of statehood.

Regardless, keep an eye on the territory. One day, it may be more influential in your life than the (lack of) success of an overrated football team.

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