- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
In one of the less-noticed results last night, voters in Puerto Rico for the first time overwhelmingly voted in favor of becoming a U.S. state.
With 243 of 1,643 precincts reporting late Tuesday, 75,188 voters, or 53 percent, said they did not want to continue under the current political status. Forty-seven percent, or 67,304 voters, supported the status quo.
On the second question, 65 percent favored statehood, followed by 31 percent for sovereign free association and 4 percent for independence.
President Obama has pledged to respect the results of the referendum (as, for what it’s worth, did Mitt Romney), but of course Congress must approve the addition of any new states to the Union. Though only a simple majority is needed, that can be difficult to come by as we residents of Washington D.C. have learned over the years.
The conventional wisdom is that Puerto Rico would — like D.C. — be a solid blue state, making Republican senators unlikely to support it. But history shows, that a new state’s future political trajectory can be difficult to predict. When the last two states were admitted, it was widely assumed that Hawaii would lean Republican and Alaska would lean Democrat — multicultural Hawaii was opposed in particular by pro-segregation southern Democrats. John F. Kennedy won the Aloha State by just 115 votes in 1960. Last night, Obama took the state where he was born with 70 percent of the vote while Sarah Palin’s state went 55 percent for Romney.
There is some reason to think Puerto Rican statehood wouldn’t necessarily be a slam dunk for Democrats. Puerto Rican politics don’t break down along strict Republican-Democrat lines, but many members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party lean to the right, including current governor Luis Fortuno, who was a staunch Romney backer and a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention. It’s not entirely out of the question that the GOP could make a play for the new state.
Making the statehood qusetion more complicated is the fact that Fortuno lost his election to Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party. It’s not yet clear exactly how the debate will play out in the wake of the referendum and victories by Padilla and Obama, but if D.C.’s experience is any guide, it could take a while.