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Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of statehood. Now it’s up to Congress.

Congress hasn’t taken steps to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state.

Christina Animashaun/Vox
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Puerto Ricans have again voted in favor of making their island home a US state and they’re hoping that, this time around, their decision will carry actual weight.

Puerto Rico, which has been a US territory for 122 years and is the world’s oldest colony, has held five previous non-binding referendums on the issue. In 2012 and 2017, the island’s 3 million citizens overwhelmingly backed statehood, but Congress never took further action to admit Puerto Rico into the union.

This year, they were asked: “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” A majority of voters answered “yes,” according to the AP, New York Times, and the island election commission, as of Wednesday afternoon. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, the margin stood at 52 percent for, and 48 percent against.

As the Times noted, the turnout figures are complicated. But Puerto Ricans are hoping that sends a clear message to Congress regarding their desire to attain the rights and privileges associated with statehood. Though Puerto Ricans are American citizens and pay into federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, they do not hold seats in Congress and cannot cast votes for president. They do vote for a resident commissioner who can introduce legislation and vote on committees in the House of Representatives, but that’s a far cry from full voting privileges.

Congress isn’t under legal obligation to abide by the outcome of the referendum — congressional lawmakers could have passed legislation that would have conferred the island with statehood depending on the outcome of the referendum, but they didn’t.

Statehood proponents hoped for higher turnout than in past referendums, feeling that would make it difficult for US lawmakers to ignore the issue after years of claiming that Puerto Ricans should decide their own fate. Less than a quarter of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2017 referendum, which was boycotted by opposition parties that support either maintaining the status quo or independence. That raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote and allowed US lawmakers to punt the issue.

Puerto Rico has a lot to gain from becoming a state. In addition to having a say in presidential elections, the new state would have two seats in the Senate and five representatives in the House. It would also likely gain federal funding; it would be a lot harder for the federal government to withhold aid, as President Donald Trump, who previously mulled selling the island, did after Hurricane Maria.

But critics have warned that it would also increase federal taxes. (Puerto Ricans and corporations headquartered on the island currently only pay federal taxes in limited circumstances.)

If Puerto Rico becomes a state, it could shake up the political dynamics in Congress. Most Puerto Ricans who have moved to the US mainland have historically backed Democrats. But it’s not clear that the island would be reliably blue. Experts say it’s more likely that it would be a swing state.