By Katie Windham
There are 4.4 million American citizens who do not have voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are all technically part of the United States, but have no voice in the federal government since they are not states. This can have very real consequences; in the disastrous wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans had no one to advocate for them in Washington. More fundamentally, this lack of representation goes against everything America stands for. We are the oldest and largest democracy on the planet, yet we routinely ignore the concerns of millions of our citizens.
In recent years, the question of DC and Puerto Rican statehood has gained prominence, especially among progressives. The other territories are generally considered too small to become states, but DC has more residents than either Vermont or Wyoming, while Puerto Rico would become the 29th most populous state. Both also contribute significantly to the federal economy. Though Puerto Ricans don’t have to pay federal income taxes, they still pay a variety of payroll taxes, sales taxes, and tariffs that cumulatively add up to more than the taxes paid by six states. Similarly, DC paid more in federal taxes than 22 states in 2015. Yet neither of these territories have any say in what taxes are leveled. As DC license plates say, this is a clear case of taxation without representation.
From January 25 to 29, 2019, Data for Progress fielded a survey of 1,282 US voters with YouGov Blue. On that survey, we asked voters about statehood for both Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. Specifically, we asked respondents:
Would you support or oppose granting statehood, including full representation in Congress, to Washington, DC, currently a Federal District?
Would you support or oppose granting statehood, including full representation in Congress, to Puerto Rico, currently a US Commonwealth?
to which respondents could respond if they strongly supported, somewhat supported, neither supported nor opposed, somewhat opposed, strongly opposed, or were unsure.
Overall, clear majorities of these Americans support both DC and Puerto Rican statehood, with 6 percent net support DC statehood (34 percent in support, 28 percent opposed and the rest “don’t know” or “neither”) and 32 percent net support for Puerto Rican statehood (53 percent in support, 21 percent opposed and the rest “don’t know” or “neither”).
Support for statehood is strongly correlated with ideology. On net, 67 percent of individuals who voted for Democrats in 2018 support Puerto Rico statehood and 40 percent support DC statehood. Among those who voted for Republicans in 2018, net support for Puerto Rican statehood was -15 percent, and net support for DC statehood was -39 percent. There are several potential reasons for this. First, DC is known to be one of the most liberal cities in the US, and Hispanics lean Democratic, though Puerto Ricans generally are more socially conservative. Therefore, if they became states, the Senate and Electoral College could swing sharply left. In addition, fiscal conservatives might be worried about the federal government taking on Puerto Rico’s debt, and originalists might interpret the Constitution as forbidding DC statehood.
Support for statehood is also strongly associated with age, and both Boomers and the Silent generation on net oppose DC statehood.
Support for statehood was weakest in rural areas, with rural voters on net being opposed to DC statehood.
However, where conservatives live affects their opinion. Urban conservatives are more likely to support both DC and Puerto Rican statehood than the average conservative.
Demographic factors such as race and gender had less bearing on support for statehood. There was no significant relationship between gender and support for Puerto Rican statehood, but on net, men were split even on DC statetehood, while women supported it by 11 points. Most of this was driven by ideological differences; there was no gendered difference in opinion for liberals and moderates. However, conservative men were significantly less likely to support DC statehood than conservative women.
With regards to race people of color were more supportive of DC statehood than whites, though the gap was smaller on opinion about Puerto Rican statehood.
Finally, one might expect people from states neighboring DC and states with large Puerto Rican populations to be more supportive of statehood. This hypothesis holds true for DC; 54 percent of people from Virginia and Maryland support DC statehood (with 18 percent opposed), compared to only 41 of people from other states (with 35 percent opposed). This suggests that representatives from Virginia and Maryland should lead the fight for statehood, since DC residents don’t have any other voting representatives to advocate for them. However, there is no significant difference in support for Puerto Rican statehood between states with a high Puerto Rican population and other states (the four states where at least 5 percent of the population is Puerto Rican are considered to have a high Puerto Rican population).
Statehood activists in DC and Puerto Rico should be heartened by these results. Though it is a partisan issue, clear majorities of Americans support DC and especially Puerto Rico becoming states, cutting across racial and gender lines. Of course, Puerto Ricans and DC residents should have the final say on this issue. If they support statehood, Congress and the White House should prioritize admitting both Puerto Rico and Washington, DC to the union. Doing so would be a winning proposal with all Americans, including among those who already have representation.
Katie Windham is a senior at Tufts University.