Could Puerto Rico be 51?

Early Wednesday morning, my social media feeds were full of comments and links on various political topics: The presidential race, of course. The various ballot measures on gay marriage, marijuana and other issues. The historically high — but still pathetically low — number of women who will be in the US Senate next year. And because my friends are huge nerds, there was a lot of commentary on the eerily accurate predictions of Nate Silver, who is suspected of witchcraft but probably just paid attention in math class (while the future FoxNews team sat in the back, doodling on their desks).

Yet despite the help of my tweeps and facebook friends, I completely missed one major election story until just now: Puerto Rico voted on whether it wants to become one of these United States.

The Caribbean archipelago is currently a territory of the United States. Its residents are citizens but have very limited representation in DC. Puerto Rico has had a statehood movement for decades, but this is the first time that a popular referendum has endorsed it. The referendum is not a clear-cut endorsement though: first, 54% endorsed changing the current status; then, in a separate question about what the new status should be, “statehood” garnered 61% out of those who responded to that question – but a third of voters didn’t select an option in that second question, perhaps because they were among those who didn’t want to change status in the first place. So in reality, less than half of those who cast ballots chose statehood.

But never you mind. As we’ve already established, journalists are not highly numerate. Hence the headlines that read:

…and also…

So that’s going to be the takeaway. What’s the practical upshot? My reaction to this runs along two lines.

1. HistoricalAdding a new state can be messy, to say the least. The US expanded constantly during its first century, though often that expansion was brutal and violent. After about a century as an independent nation we split in two, but a bloody civil war maintained the union. We kept adding states regularly until New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912. Then we took a break until 1959, when we added two more: Alaska and Hawaii. In the half-century since, we’ve held constant at 50.

Today, the expansion of the European Union is peaceful, unlike much of the continent’s history. However, their union might be on shaky fiscal ground. Despite America’s many political disagreements and overall dismal financial situation, at least there’s little doubt that it’ll hold together. So if the Europeans are expanding, why shouldn’t we? Political and economic union has proven one of the greatest engines for prosperity. As long as people want to join, I say we keep it up.

2. Political: In a given moment, history is politics. And it’s the politics of today that will determine whether Puerto Rico actually becomes a state. Congress would have to approve Puerto Rico’s entrance into the union. The politics of that probably depend on which party expects to benefit. Who would win Puerto Rico’s two Senate seats and projected five House seats? And how would Puerto Ricans vote in presidential elections? Republicans know they aren’t too popular with Hispanic and Latino voters. The GOP might be wary of admitting another blue state, but they might be even more worried about further alienating a growing demographic. Meanwhile, Obama has already stated that he will support what the people of Puerto Rico want.

It looks like there might be few opponents to this. But of course, politics is always more complicated than that. Stay tuned, because it’ll be interesting no matter what, and our flag might soon look like this:

Now… how can we squeeze in a 52nd star for DC?

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