How the US Statehood Process Works

The Process Traditionally Followed by Congress Can Take Decades

Old map showing Texas and surrounding territories
Early Map of Texas and Surrounding Territories. Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

The process by which U.S. territories attain full statehood is, at best, an inexact art. While Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress to grant statehood, the process for doing so is not specified.

The Constitution merely declares that new states cannot be created by merging or splitting existing states without the approval of both the U.S. Congress and the states' legislatures.

Otherwise, Congress is given the authority to determine the conditions for statehood. "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States…" — U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, clause 2.

Congress typically requires the territory applying for statehood to have a certain minimum population. In addition, Congress requires the territory to provide evidence that a majority of its residents favor statehood. However, Congress is under no constitutional obligation to grant statehood, even in those territories whose population expresses a desire for statehood.

The Typical Process

Historically, Congress has applied the following general procedure when granting territories statehood:

  • The territory holds a referendum vote to determine the people's desire for or against statehood.
  • Should a majority vote to seek statehood, the territory petitions the U.S. Congress for statehood.
  • The territory, if it has not already done so, is required to adopt a form of government and constitution that are in compliance with the U.S. Constitution.
  • The U.S. Congress — both House and Senate — pass, by a simple majority vote, a joint resolution accepting the territory as a state.
  • The President of the United States signs the joint resolution and the territory is acknowledged as a U.S. state.

    The process attaining statehood can literally take decades. For example, consider the case of Puerto Rico and its attempt to become the 51st state.

    The Puerto Rico Statehood Process

    Puerto Rico became a United States territory in 1898 and people born in Puerto Rico have automatically been granted full U.S. citizenship since 1917 by an act of Congress.

    • In 1950, the U.S. Congress authorized Puerto Rico to draft a local constitution. In 1951, a constitutional convention was held in Puerto Rico to draft the constitution.
    • In 1952, Puerto Rico ratified its territorial constitution establishing a republican form of government, which was approved by the U.S. Congress as being “not repugnant” to the U.S. Constitution and the functional equivalent of a valid state constitution.

    Then things like the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11, 2001, the Wars on Terror, the great recession and lots of politics put Puerto Rico’s statehood petition on Congress’ back burner for over 60 years.  

    • On November 6, 2012, the territorial government of Puerto Rico held a two-question public referendum vote on petitioning for U.S. statehood. The first question asked voters if Puerto Rico should continue to be a U.S. territory. The second question asked voters to choose from among the three possible alternatives to territorial status — statehood, independence, and nationhood in free association with the United States. In the vote count, 61% of the voters chose statehood, while only 54% voted to retain territorial status.
    • In August 2013, a U.S. Senate committee heard testimony on Puerto Rico’s 2012 statehood referendum vote and acknowledged that the majority of the Puerto Rican people had “expressed their opposition to continuing the current territorial status.”
    • On February 4, 2015, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives Pedro Pierluisi, introduced the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act (H.R. 727). The bill authorizes Puerto Rico’s State Elections Commission to hold a vote on Puerto Rico's admission into the Union as a state within one year after the act’s enactment. If a majority of the votes cast are for Puerto Rico's admission as a state, the bill requires the president of the United States to issue a proclamation to begin the transition process that will result in Puerto Rico's admission as a state effective January 1, 2021.
    • On June 11, 2017, the people of Puerto Rico voted for U.S. statehood in a nonbinding referendum. Preliminary results showed that almost 500,000 ballots were cast for statehood, more than 7,600 for free association-independence, and almost 6,700 for retaining the current territorial status. Only about 23% of the island’s approximately 2.26 million registered voters cast ballots, leading to statehood opponents to doubt the validity of the result. Puerto Rico’s governor will now select two senators and five representatives to go to Washington, D.C., to ask the U.S. Congress to grant the territory statehood. Despite the size of the vote in favor of statehood, the extremely low voter turnout may lessen the likelihood that Congress will grant the request. 

    • Note: While Puerto Rico’s resident commissioners to the House are allowed to introduce legislation and take part in debates and committee hearings, they are not allowed to actually vote on legislation. Similarly, non-voting resident commissioners from the other U.S territories of American Samoa, the District of Columbia (a federal district), Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands also serve in the House.

    So if the U.S. legislative process eventually smiles on the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act, the entire process of transition from U.S. territory to U.S. state will have taken the Puerto Rican people over 71 years. 

    While some territories have significantly delayed petitioning for statehood, including Alaska (92 years) and Oklahoma (104 years), no valid petition for statehood has ever been denied by the U.S. Congress.

    Powers and Duties of All US States

    Once a territory has been granted statehood, it has all the rights, powers and duties established by the U.S. Constitution.

    • The new state is required to elect delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
    • The new state has the right to adopt a state constitution.
    • The new state is required to form legislative, executive, and state judicial branches as necessary to effectively govern the state.
    • The new state is granted all of those governmental powers not reserved to the federal government under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.
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    Longley, Robert. "How the US Statehood Process Works." ThoughtCo, Oct. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/us-statehood-process-3322311. Longley, Robert. (2017, October 16). How the US Statehood Process Works. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/us-statehood-process-3322311 Longley, Robert. "How the US Statehood Process Works." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/us-statehood-process-3322311 (accessed October 23, 2017).