‘Puerto Rican citizens — U.S. citizens — ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state,” Jeb Bush said this week. But they have had the right to determine that several times, and they seem to have determined the answer: No. The former Florida governor also said he thought statehood was a good idea on the merits, which it plainly is not.
The most recent occasion for Puerto Ricans to weigh in was 2012, when they technically did end up voting for statehood — in a ballot process that would make Vladimir Putin blush. Voters were first asked whether they supported Puerto Rico’s current relationship with the U.S., as a commonwealth. They disapproved of their current status, 54–46, a margin that can be in large part explained by the small but non-negligible share of Puerto Ricans who want complete independence. The second question offered three choices for the new status — independence, a new unclear form of “free association,” or statehood — and only 44 percent of all voters chose statehood. But because more than half a million voters skipped the second question entirely, as the effort’s opponents had encouraged, a majority of voters who answered the question picked statehood.
That is the nearest Puerto Ricans have come to asking to be a state, after decades in which the island’s political and business elite, Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans have pushed for the idea. In three previous referenda (1967, 1993, and 1998), statehood was voted down outright.
Contrast this with the process by which Hawaii and Alaska joined the union: Voters in the former gave 94 percent support to statehood in a 1959 referendum, while the people of the latter voted for statehood 58–42 in 1946, and then 83–17 in 1958.
Bush, like some congressmen, says Puerto Rico should have a new up-or-down plebiscite, but even if this would yield a new result, it would be reckless. In any referendum, permanent change of status should hinge on some supermajority level of support, as, say, constitutional amendments do. We do not want ambivalent states.
If Puerto Rico became a state, its economy and culture would be incredible outliers: It is twice as poor as the poorest of the 50 states, and it would of course be the first Spanish-speaking one. Statehood would remove some of the competitive benefits the island currently enjoys — protection of the United States and its laws without paying income taxes, for instance — in exchange for an inordinately generous welfare state. (One important economic policy exported from the mainland, the federal minimum wage, is believed to have had devastating effects.) The territory is currently stuck in a deep economic malaise, driving large numbers of residents to emigrate, but what it needs is structural reform, not statehood.
So what is Governor Bush thinking? In Washington, the issue has long been more of a Democratic cause — the state would be reliably blue — but some Republicans have warmed to the idea on political grounds, too, thinking it will win over Hispanic voters, especially the growing population of Puerto Ricans in Florida. Bush surely believes what he said (his brother was sympathetic, too), but if this is a political ploy, it’s an unwise one.
Needless to say, trying to win over more Hispanic voters is a good idea. But it should be accomplished by pushing sound policies that appeal to broad swaths of working Americans, rather than offering tailored ethnic ploys. Especially not ones with lasting consequences for the structure of these United States.