How the US Statehood Process Works

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.

Key Takeaways: U.S. Statehood Process

  • The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to grant statehood but does not establish the process for doing so. Congress is free to determine the conditions of statehood on a case-by-case basis.
  • According to the Constitution, a new state cannot be created by splitting or merging existing states unless both the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of the states involved approve.
  • In most past cases, Congress has required that the people of the territory seeking statehood vote in a free referendum election, then petition the U.S. government for statehood.

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.

Congress is under no constitutional obligation, however, 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 of attaining statehood can literally take decades. For example, consider the case of Puerto Rico and its attempt to become the 51st state.

Puerto Rico Statehood Process

Puerto Rico became a U.S. 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 whether 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. The vote, however, did not appear to be divided along party lines.
  • 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, nonvoting 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 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Hawaii and Alaska Statehood

By 1959, nearly a half-century had passed since Arizona became the 47th state of the United States on February 14, 1912. However, within just one year, the so-called “Great 48” states became the “Nifty 50” states as Alaska and Hawaii formally attained statehood. 

Alaska

It took Alaska almost a century to achieve statehood. The United States government purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. First known as “Russian America,” the land was managed as the Department of Alaska until 1884; and as the District of Alaska until becoming an incorporated territory of the United States in 1912; and finally, being officially admitted as the 49th state on January 3, 1959.

The use of the Alaska Territory as the site of key military bases during World War II led to an influx of Americans, many of whom chose to remain after the war. During the decade after the war ended in 1945, Congress rejected several bills to make Alaska the 49th state of the Union. Opponents objected to the territory’s remoteness and sparse population. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognizing Alaska’s vast natural resources and strategic proximity to the Soviet Union, signed the Alaska Statehood Act on July 7, 1958.

Hawaii

Hawaii’s journey to statehood was more complicated. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1898 over the objections of the island kingdom’s deposed but still influential Queen Lili’uokalani.

As Hawaii entered the 20th century, over 90% of Native Hawaiians and non-white Hawaiian residents favored statehood. However, as a territory, Hawaii was allowed only one nonvoting member in the House of Representatives. Wealthy American landowners and growers in Hawaii took advantage of this fact to keep labor cheap and trade tariffs low.

In 1937, a congressional committee voted in favor of Hawaiian statehood. However, the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, delayed negotiations as the loyalty of Hawaii’s Japanese population came under suspicion by the U.S. government. After the end of World War II, Hawaii’s territorial delegate in Congress revived the battle for statehood. While the House debated and passed several Hawaii statehood bills, the Senate failed to consider them.

Letters endorsing statehood poured in from Hawaiian activist groups, students, and politicians. In March 1959, both the House and Senate finally passed a Hawaii statehood resolution. In June, the citizens of Hawaii voted to accept the statehood bill, and on August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation admitting Hawaii as the 50th state.

District of Columbia Statehood Movement

The District of Columbia, also called Washington, D.C., holds the distinction of being the only U.S. territory specifically provided for in the U.S. Constitution. Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution, called for the establishment of a federal District “not to exceed ten-square-miles” in area to house the seat of the U.S. government. On July 16, 1790, President George Washington signed the Residence Act establishing the District of Columbia on the Potomac River land he had selected to be donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia.

Today, like the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia is allowed to elect one non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The enactment of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 gave citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections, which they did for the first time on November 3, 1964.

While the lack of voting representation in Congress and its inherent complaints of “taxation without representation” have driven the movement for D.C. statehood since the civil rights era of the 1950s—1970s, serious consideration of statehood began in the 1980s.

In 1980, D.C. voters approved a ballot initiative calling for the drafting of a state constitution, a step toward statehood typically taken by U.S. territories before their admission as states. In 1982, D.C. voters ratified the proposed constitution forming a new state to be called “New Columbia.” Between January 1993 and October 1984, several bills D.C. statehood bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress. However, only one of these bills, with the endorsement of President Bill Clinton, made it to the floor of the House, where it was defeated by a vote of 277 to 153.

In 2014, President Barack Obama endorse statehood for the District of Columbia. “Folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else,” he noted. “They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented like everybody else.” In 2014, IRS data showed that D.C. residents paid more in taxes than residents of 22 states.

H.R. 51—D.C. Admission Act

In a November 8, 2016 referendum, an overwhelming 86% of District of Columbia voters voted in favor of statehood. In March 2017, the District's congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton first introduced H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On June 26, 2020, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the Washington, D.C. Admission Act by a vote 232–180 largely along party lines. However, the bill died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

On January 4, 2021, Delegate Norton reintroduced H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, with a record 202 co-sponsors. The bill would create the State of “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” a reference to abolitionist Frederick Douglass. As a state, the Douglass Commonwealth would get two Senators and a number of seats in the House of Representatives based on the state’s population, currently one.

On January 26, 2021, Senator Tom Carper of Delaware introduced a similar bill, S. 51, A bill to provide for the admission of the State of Washington, D.C. into the Union,” in the Senate. By April 17 Caper’s bill had accumulated a record 45 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

On April 22, 2021, the House passed H.R. 51, to make the District of Columbia the nation’s 51st state. Before the 216-208 party-line vote, Delegate Norton told her colleagues that they had a “moral obligation” to pass the bill. “This Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, the Senate, and the White House, D.C. statehood is within reach for the first time in history,” she said.

The bill must now be considered in the Senate, where its passage remains far from certain, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) pledged that “we will try to work a path to get [statehood] done.” In a policy statement issued the same day, President Biden asked the Senate to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

The Politics of DC Statehood

Democrats have long supported D.C. statehood, seeing it as a way to gain momentum for the party’s voting rights platform.

Republicans oppose statehood, arguing that a constitutional amendment would be required for the district to become a state. To address this objection, H.R. 51, the D.C. statehood bill would carve out a smaller federal district to be called “the Capital,” which would consist of the White House, U.S. Capitol, other federal buildings, the National Mall, and its monuments.

Congressional Republicans have also characterized the D.C. statehood bill as an “unconstitutional power grab to gain two progressive Senate seats.” Calling D.C. statehood “full bore socialism,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised to object to any statehood push in the Senate. If admitted to the Union, the Douglass Commonwealth would be the first state with a plurality of Black residents.

With Democrats now controlling the White House and the Senate, the effort to make D.C. the 51st state has more support than ever before. However, Senate Republican leaders have threatened to mount a filibuster to block the passage of the statehood bill. It remains unclear whether the bill even has the backing of all 50 Democratic senators, let alone the 60 needed to break a filibuster and pass it. 

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Longley, Robert. "How the US Statehood Process Works." ThoughtCo, Jun. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/us-statehood-process-3322311. Longley, Robert. (2021, June 2). 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 September 21, 2021).