While secession by U.S. states is often seen as the domain of kooks, America also has an accession movement – and a parallel succession movement that seems to have relatively significant support in its locality and is certainly not treated as kooky.
One of the more significant, but less discussed questions in the last election was the question of Puerto Rican statehood. The matter was put to the island’s inhabitants; 54% of voters said “no” to an up/down question about maintaining the current territorial status. A second question asked about preferred alternatives; a clear majority favored statehood over full independence or some kind independent associative status.
(The formulation and ordering of alternatives is key here, as the three alternatives introduce the possibility of intransitive collective preferences. The coming Scottish independence vote could turn on a turn of phrase.)
The United Nations has long described the U.S. control of Puerto Rico as a form of colonialism, and demanded that the island’s inhabitants be allowed to exercise their rights to sovereignty and self-determination. (Americans tend to laugh off such decisions, but it is a fairly typical exercise at Turtle Bay.)
The Puerto Rican vote raises many interesting questions about accession. First, is a simple majority enough to determine the will of the Puerto Ricans on this matter? Here, the rules of secession are important for determining the rules of accession. Normally, a simple majority, or even a plurality, is good enough for most democratic decisions. However, if those decisions become automatically entrenched (require a supermajority to reverse), they should and generally do require a supermajority to enter as well
If succession is illegal, as Eugene and the Supreme Court have suggested (a matter I will question in subsequent posts), joining the Union as a state is an almost irrevocable decision. It is more permanent than a Catholic marriage or the national debt. Even a supermajority vote by the would-be succeeding state would presumably not be enough to terminate the relationship – not even a unanimous vote. Decisions of such permanence should require a significant supermajority. On the flip side, were succession possible, the rule should be easy come, easy go.
Even if Puerto Rico wanted statehood, would the U.S. be obligated to grant it? The political philosophy of the Constitution is manifestly not pure democracy – witness the electoral college. Yet democracy is surely part of our political values.
The situation of territories is different from the District of Columbia, which the Constitution specifically contemplates to be a non-state. The Constitution also permits territories without representation, yet they are quite different from the federal district: they can be numerous and of indefinite size and population, while the District is a small area located between two states. Thus D.C. is a small exception to democratic principles, territories a broader one. This is why the Constitution implicitly treats territorial status as a temporary, transitory state.
Accepting Puerto Rico as a state would have obvious electoral consequences, and the Republicans would be well within their rights to resist it, as would any state concerned about the dilution of its votes. There is no requirement on the U.S. to accede to a territory’s statehood wishes. Yet if the majority of Puerto Ricans do not want to be governed as a territory, it becomes a bit embarrassing for the U.S. to perpetuate this form of government.
Thus the remaining option is one that may not have majority support anywhere, independence. Depending on how things go over the next few years, perhaps Puerto Rico could join Catalonia, Scotland, Kosovo (but not the Serb region thereof), Kurdistan, Other Kurdistan, South Sudan and Flanders in the Association of Newly Seceded States. I wish them much seccess.