Is Puerto Rico on the Verge of Becoming the 51st State?

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In the midst of Tuesday's mad rush of election news from all 50 states, one contest was largely lost in the shuffle: Puerto Rico's referendum on statehood, which could potentially make the Caribbean island and U.S. territory the 51st state in the union. Now that the ballots have been tallied, it's clear that a majority of Puerto Ricans favor full statehood. What's the next step for Puerto Rico and the U.S. government? Could Puerto Rico really become the 51st state? Here's what you should know.

First off: What makes a U.S. territory different than a state?

There are a number of things, but essentially, though Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens, they lack representation in the Electoral College. Indeed, the closest thing Puerto Rico has to representation in the federal government is a non-voting "Resident Commissioner" seat in the House of Representatives, which is currently held by Pedro Pierluisi (D) — a position "that has as much influence as a court jester," says David Minsky at the Miami New Times.

When did this arrangement begin?

In 1917, when Puerto Ricans were officially recognized as U.S. citizens, almost 20 years after the United States military acquired the Caribbean island in the Spanish-American War. Since then, three referendums have been held — in 1967, 1993, and 1998 — but statehood has remained elusive.

So what exactly happened in Puerto Rico on Election Day?

A majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of becoming America's 51st state. In a two-part referendum, 53 percent of voters said they didn't want to continue Puerto Rico's current 114-year relationship with the United States. In the second part, which offered several alternatives to current U.S.-Puerto Rico ties, 65 percent of voters favored statehood, 31 percent favored sovereign free association, and 4 percent favored full independence.

Does that mean Puerto Rico is on its way to statehood?

Not necessarily. It's certainly a possible step in that direction — but "don't start trying to fit a 51st star onto the U.S. flag just yet," says Abby Ohlehieser at Slate. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives would need to approve Puerto Rico's statehood by a two-thirds majority, and though President Obama has said he would be open to the possibility of Puerto Rico joining the union, it's not clear if Tuesday's vote is enough to convince the White House to forcefully take up the issue.

Any other hurdles in the way?

Several. If the United States were to admit Puerto Rico into the union, the island would potentially be expected to embrace English as the universal language of understanding — a tall order for the reported 85 percent of Puerto Ricans who speak very little English. And Puerto Rico, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn, might be considered by politicians to be too much of a burden on the national treasury. Plus, Election Day offered a new challenge: Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuno appears to have lost his re-election bid to challenger Alejandro Garcia Padilla, an advocate of the island's current national status.

Sources: Miami New Times (2) (3)Slate (2)Deustche Welle