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.

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Longley, Robert. "How the US Statehood Process Works." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/us-statehood-process-3322311. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 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 March 8, 2021).