Ask Civics 101: How Are States Added? What's The Difference Between a State and a Commonwealth?
Today’s listener question comes from Jennifer, who wrote, “What is the difference between a state and a commonwealth? Will Puerto Rico become a state or a commonwealth?” We’ll address both of those questions today. Read on, or listen to this short podcast episode for the answer.
State vs Commonwealth
There are four states that refer to themselves as “commonwealths,” Massachusetts, Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. However, there is no legal distinction between them and states in any way.
The reason these states are called commonwealths is because when their constitutions were drafted, they referred to themselves as such. 17th century political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke used the term to represent an organized political community.
What about Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico is also a commonwealth, but again in name only. Its legal status is a U.S. territory. The three million people who live there are indeed American citizens, but they have no representation. They do not send anyone to Congress, they do not award electoral votes, they do not pay federal income taxes. They do however pay payroll taxes like Social Security and business taxes, they paid $3.6 billion to the U.S. government in 2016.
Will Puerto Rico become a state?
This November, Puerto Ricans voted for a referendum to make it the 51st state. But whether it becomes a state or not depends entirely on the U.S. Congress. Article IV of the Constitution says that adding a state requires the “consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” There is also a movement for Washington, D.C., which does have three electoral votes, to become a state. If Congress votes for them to become states, this would result in several new seats in the House and four in the Senate.
Is adding these states a partisan political act?
It is, but as our guest Robinson Woodward-Burns noted, that has always been the case when adding states. For example, in 1889 when the Republican Party was facing a probable loss in the 1890 election, Congress simply created six new states and they got 12 Republican senators out of it. The Dakota territory, which was home to a large non-voting Native American population but only 20,000 potential citizens, became two states overnight.
Robinson noted that it is undisputed that less-populated states have disproportionate power in the Senate, and while that is unlikely to change due to a requisite constitutional amendment, adding more states can address that imbalance of power, and it would be up to Congress to decide if it were to do this act of “constitutional hardball.”