Puerto Rico’s government is banking on a push for statehood to solve the structural issues that led to its financial crisis.
Puerto Ricans will vote Sunday to decide the territory’s status.
If statehood wins, as expected, the island will enact what’s known as the Tennessee Plan, an avenue to accession by which U.S. territories send a congressional delegation to demand to be seated in Washington.
Puerto Rico will send two senators and five representatives, chosen by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D), later this year, once the plan is put into action.
Statehood remains a long shot as many Republicans are wary of adding a 51st state that could add two Democratic senators and seven Democratic electors to the Electoral College.
Others, noting the examples of Alaska and Hawaii, both added to the union in 1959, say it can be difficult to predict how territories will vote as states.
“Those are the same people that 60 years ago said that Hawaii was going to be a super Republican state and Alaska was going to be super Democratic, and that’s why we brought them in together,” said José Fuentes Agostini, the head of Puerto Rican Republicans in the states.
The Puerto Rican Republican Party is adamantly pro-statehood. And the national Republican Party has supported statehood since the 1940s, most clearly in its 2016 platform.
“We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state,” the platform stated. “Once the 2012 local vote for statehood is ratified, Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union.”
President Trump, who angered Puerto Ricans by decrying a potential “bailout” of their financial system on the campaign trail and as president, also indicated openness to the idea.
As a candidate, he said, “The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
Puerto Rican voters in the states have predominantly voted for Democrats, translating to broad party support for statehood. Many also argue that Puerto Rico’s status as a territory is intrinsically linked to its economic challenges.
“Status is a major part of the problem Puerto Rico faces all the time. In my opinion, the main problem,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born on the island.
Statehood supporters argue that territorial status has held back the island’s economy by creating a legal structure where Congress can pick and choose how national laws — most notably tax laws — apply to Puerto Rico.
“The thought that is given to national policy is not applied to Puerto Rico, and then people try to come up with special deals, usually because they’re trying to save a few dollars,” said Jeffrey Farrow, a territorial expert and former White House aide.
“Those special deals almost never work and almost always exacerbate the problem.”
Still, the plan faces legal challenges and opposition on the island — despite the fact that Puerto Ricans in 2012 voted by a wide margin to become a state.
Then-Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (D), a member of the anti-statehood Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), opposed statehood. His party and the small pro-independence party have vowed to boycott Sunday’s vote.
Following the 2012 plebiscite, opponents of statehood argued that participation had not been high enough to reflect the true will of the people.
Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (R) belong to the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) within Puerto Rico. It is promoting participation in the vote.
Statehood opponents are counting on the boycott to lower turnout. They say that unless 50 percent of the total voter roll approves statehood, it will not be a credible vote.
According to a poll by San Juan-based newspaper El Nuevo Dia released last week, 72 percent of registered voters plan to vote, and 20 percent have already decided to boycott the election.
Opposition parties say a boycott is justified because the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not approved the final ballot.
Rosselló initially submitted a ballot that did not allow voters to vote to continue the status quo, only giving the option of voting for independence or statehood.
Justice required Rosselló to include the status quo in a revised ballot, which he did, but the DOJ said it would not have enough time to review the revised ballot before the plebiscite.
The ballot has also won attention from Congress.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) spoke out against it, arguing it “unfairly stacks the deck in favor of statehood.”
He penned a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions objecting to the ballot’s title, “Plebiscite for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico.” Wicker said that Puerto Rico has not been a colony since its annexation from Spain in 1898.
Proponents of statehood insist that territorial status for 3.5 million citizens amounts to colonialism.
In Washington last month, Rosselló called for an end to “500 years of colonial status” and “100 years of U.S. citizenship without full rights.”
Despite opposition in San Juan and Washington, Puerto Rico’s top officials will follow through with the plan of sending a delegation to Congress, under a law signed by Rosselló on Monday, assuming statehood wins out.
Whether that delegation will be received is unclear. Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office did not return a request for comment.