Will Puerto Rico Become the 51st U.S. State? Island Chooses Between Statehood, Independence or Status Quo

Puerto Rico votes
A view of the Puerto Rican Capitol in 2015. The island will host a referendum on June 11 to decide whether to join the U.S. as its 51st state, demand independence or remain a U.S. territory. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A little more than one hundred years after being granted U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans will go to the polls on Sunday to decide the next step in their country's history.

Three options present themselves in the nonbinding referendum: joining the U.S. as the 51st state, retaining the status quo or voting for independence, a choice made possible after a bill passed in February called the Law for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico 2017.

The ruling New Progressive Party is a staunch supporter of the statehood option, while the opposition Popular Democratic Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party disapprove of the vote to the point of boycotting it. Supporters of the boycott have called for a march on Sunday, which is also Puerto Rico's National Day, to protest the $7.8 million referendum.

The boycott is, however, likely to backfire: This is the fifth of such plebiscites over the island's status, and this time victory for statehood looks likely as support for this option grows. Preliminary results will be known around 6 p.m., but it will take about five days before they are deemed official.

What Is the Problem?

Puerto Rico is currently considered part of the commonwealth as an organized but unincorporated dependent territory, also known as a free associated state.

The island was once under Spanish control, but it was given to the U.S. in 1898 after Spain lost the Spanish-American War. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson recognized it as a U.S. territory, granting Puerto Ricans American citizenship and the freedom of entry to any of the other 50 U.S. states and to vote in elections if they established residency in one of them.

Puerto Ricans do not hold any seats in Congress or the Senate but can vote in party primaries. Winning Puerto Rico in 2016 gave Hillary Clinton a boost toward reaching the number of delegates she needed to clinch the Democratic Party nomination. But the most problematic aspect of Puerto Rico's current status is the financial restrictions imposed on the island's government: for example, the inability for it to default on its staggering $70 billion debt.

In May, the U.S. agreed to provide $295 million in Medicaid funding from the federal government as part of Congress's spending plan to avert a government shutdown, as Reuters reported. But the situation is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the long term.

According to analysts, if Puerto Rico had access to the same legal and financial protections that states (and their cities and entities) enjoy, the crisis could have been averted. The financial argument is one that dominates the pro-statehood side of the vote. The current status has hindered the island's economic growth as Puerto Rico is subject to legislation from Congress, without having the possibility to influence its decision-making process.

What Are the Scenarios?

As per the vote outcome, Puerto Rico can either remain a territory, demand independence or ask for its statehood to be recognized.

The latter scenario would trigger the so-called Tennessee Plan, a route to accession to the U.S. that involves sending a congressional delegation to demand to take seats in Washington.

The plan of action is named after the process through which in 1796 Tennessee became a state and that was considered unorthodox for the time. Territories used to have to ask Congress for statehood and wait for a congressional declaration, but Tennessee instead held a vote in which people voted for statehood, declared themselves a state, organized its representatives and persuaded Congress to agree.

The Tennessee Plan has since been followed by other six states: Michigan, Iowa, California, Oregon, Kansas and Alaska. New Mexico, which failed in its attempt to follow the Tennessee Plan in 1850, had to wait 62 years before Congress approved its statehood.

Should Puerto Ricans reject statehood in favor of independence, another referendum will be held to choose between becoming a separate sovereignty from the U.S. with a treaty or pure independence.

What do Republicans, Trump and Americans Think About It?

The Republican Party has traditionally supported statehood for Puerto Rico, while the Democratic Party said it was ready to support whatever decision Puerto Ricans made through fair, open and democratic elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently tweeted against the Puerto Rico bailout, writing, "The Democrats want to shut government if we don't bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!" on April 27. His stance on statehood remains unclear, although local media reported in January 2016 that he issued a statement during the presidential campaign in support of self-determination.

According to a survey conducted in March by the Rasmussen Report, 40 percent of Americans believe Puerto Rico should be a state, up from 35 percent in 2013. Thirty-nine percent disagree, and 21 percent are undecided.

The island of Puerto Rico, located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, would become the third smallest U.S. state, with 9,104 square kilometers, after Rhode Island and Delaware. However, with more than 3.4 million people, Puerto Rico's population almost matches Connecticut's, the size of which allows the East Coast state to have five congressional seats.