Statehood: Who’s Going to be the 51st State?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a new state. And it seems like we’re closer than ever as Congress debates D.C. statehood for the second time in a year. Puerto Rico has also come up a lot lately, and it all makes for some fascinating what ifs.

For my entire life, the U.S. has been 50 states. It’s a nice round number. Makes the flag with 50 stars nice and symmetrical. As a kid, I assumed that was it—no more states because 50 is a round number.

Of course 50 states is entirely arbitrary and we can add states whenever we feel like it.

And maybe now is that time.

The Rationale

The debate surrounding statehood is fascinating. Of course it’s incredibly partisan, because it always has been. In the mid-1800s, Congress had to carefully balance power between slave and free states as new states were added. And then there’s Dakota. Oh yeah, it’s not Dakota, it’s North Dakota and South Dakota because the Republicans won control of Congress and divided it into two states because they could (they also left out New Mexico because it would likely have been a Democrat state).

So it’s kind of funny to hear the pearl clutching today that Democrats want to add D.C. because it will likely mean two Democratic Senators.

The Flip Side has a fascinating collection of the arguments on both sides of D.C. statehood from last June and this week.

Frankly, I find it ridiculous that more than 700,000 people don’t have representation in Congress. There should be a solution to that. Returning D.C. to Maryland seems like a simple solution, but apparently neither Maryland nor D.C. residents want that. I’m also not sure if I understand all the arguments about consolidated federal power. Surely all the states surrounding D.C. already benefit from proximity to the nation’s capital. You don’t see California complaining about it.

I’d like to see D.C. get statehood as a democratic principle. We’re supposed to be all about representation, so those folks should get their vote in Congress. It’s already kind of dumb that we invest so much power simply based on land in the Senate. D.C. as a state seems like a minor step in the other direction.

And if you really want to get into the weeds on this, there’s an interesting wrinkle where if D.C. becomes a state there still has to be a “federal enclave” that includes the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the National Mall, and thanks to the 23rd Amendment, that federal enclave gets three electoral votes. But the only residents in that area? Whoever lives in the White House. There’s a myriad of ways to unravel that, but it’s complicated to say the least.

The Practical Issues

But to be honest, I’m more interested in the less noble questions.

What are we going to call it? D.C. seems like a silly name since it would no longer be a district. And we already have Washington. Columbia seems like a logical choice, though I’m sure a lot of folks would like to avoid saddling something else with Columbus’ name.

A 2016 commission actually settled on New Columbia, while rejecting Douglass Commonwealth (named for Frederick Douglass), Potomac, and Anacostia.

What will the flag look like? This actually isn’t that complicated. The design already exists, and as John Oliver has pointed out, casual observers won’t notice the difference:

Puerto Rico?

Don’t forget about Puerto Rico. The territory actually had a referendum on statehood during the 2020 election (when they couldn’t vote for president), and 52.5% supported statehood. That close margin has muddied the waters a bit, with competing bills in Congress pushing for different paths forward.

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