It was on January 3, 1959, that Alaska became the 49th state after a long road to the union. Today, two others are considering a similar path, and likewise face big obstacles.
It took Alaska, despite its impressive size and rich history, about 13 years to become a full-fledged state after World War II, and it needed help from Hawaii.
Recently, voters in Puerto Rico decided to ask Congress to consider its petition for statehood after a November referendum. And last month, there was again talk that the District of Columbia should seek to become a state.
Those two options seem long shots at the moment, because of the complicated process—and politics—of becoming a state.
In the case of Alaska, it started its legal quest for statehood in 1946, when voters approved its referendum. It took years and years of lobbying in Congress to get serious consideration for Alaska’s admittance to the union.
Prior to World War II, Alaska suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex and its own internal politics. Originally called Seward’s Folly after its 1867 purchase from Russia, Alaska came to national attention after its Gold Rush period.
It became a territory in 1912 and started making noise about becoming a state four years later. And its strategic importance became obvious during World War II.
The Democrats during the 1950s favored Alaska as the 49th state, while the Republicans wanted Hawaii admitted by itself. The reason was that each new state gets two U.S. senators and at least one new House member, and the admission of a new state can swing votes in Congress.
The Constitution is vague about the whole process of how a territory becomes a state, delegating the task to Congress.
In Article IV, Section 3, Congress is given the power to decide what states and territories are, but state legislatures would have to approve any act that would combine two existing states or form a new state from parts of other states. (So reuniting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, or Virginia and West Virginia, would be a very difficult task.)
Hawaii both helped and complicated the approval process for Alaska, but a congressional compromise was brokered. Alaska became the 49th state in January 1959, and Hawaii became the 50th state in August 1959.
Puerto Rico’s referendum passed in November and on the surface, it faces bigger challenges than Alaska’s did.
For starters, Puerto Rico has a much bigger population than Alaska or Hawaii did in 1959.
With its population of 3.7 million people, Puerto Rico would be entitled to eight congressional seats, including six seats in the House of Representatives, if it were granted statehood today.
Unless Congress agrees to add the six seats to the House, they would need to be taken from other states. So an elected member of Congress would need to surrender their seat and agree to redistricting.
Puerto Rico is seen as a Democrat-leaning region, so if the House were to add six new seats, it would also add six new seats in areas controlled by Republicans.
The numbers of seats in the Senate can’t be expanded in the same way, which makes it highly unlikely that a GOP-controlled House would approve of a statehood measure for Puerto Rico.
And Puerto Rico would get eight electoral votes in the next presidential election, which isn’t going to be popular with Republicans.
In the case of the District of Columbia, it already has three electoral votes, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, which was passed in 1961. The District is heavily Democratic, and its admission as a state would tilt the scales more to the Democrats’ liking in Congress.
Outgoing Senator Joe Lieberman introduced a District of Columbia statehood bill last month that would leave a small federal district intact in the Mall area near the White House and the Capitol, and make the rest of the region the state of New Columbia.
In addition to the politics of adding a new state with three Democratic members of Congress, the District of Columbia could face an unusual legal issue.
Since new states are entitled to three electoral votes and the District of Columbia already has three electors under the 23rd Amendment, another amendment may be needed to repeal the 23rd Amendment. Otherwise, the new federal district, consisting of historic buildings, wouldn’t have any full-time residents, but would still have three electoral votes.
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