A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Puerto Rico and the General Election


Q: Why does Puerto Rico participate in the presidential primary and not the general election?

A: The United States Constitution grants voting privileges in the general election to the states and the District of Columbia only, not to U.S. territories.

FULL ANSWER

With 55 pledged delegates at stake, residents of Puerto Rico will head to their local election polls June 1 and cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary. But for most of Puerto Rico's estimated 3.9 million residents, that’s where their presidential voting activity will end.

Unless they have official residency in a U.S. state or the District of Columbia, people living in Puerto Rico, and all other U.S. territories, are not permitted to vote in the general election in November. The Office of the Federal Register, which oversees the Electoral College, says on its Web site that "the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa to vote for President." Those with official domicile in a state or Washington, D.C., can vote by absentee ballot or travel to their home state to vote.

The hurdle for U.S. territories is in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which, in the matter of electing a president, states: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."

As we've said before, the electors, not voters, actually cast the ballots that will determine who becomes president. The Constitution designates electors for states and the District of Columbia only. D.C. gained the right to vote in the general election by way of the 23rd Amendment in 1961. In order for residents of a territory to gain the right to vote in the general election, the territory would have to gain statehood, or the Constitution would have to be amended. These are not easy tasks, and over the years residents of Puerto Rico haven't always embraced the idea of becoming the 51st state.

Though recognized as a U.S. territory, the Caribbean island is actually a commonwealth with its own constitution. In 1998, citizens of Puerto Rico voted against statehood for the third time, in favor of keeping their current status. Under this form of government, Puerto Rico residents are recognized as U.S. citizens, but they don't pay federal income taxes and they cannot vote in presidential elections. But that could change. In late April, a bill to allow residents of the island to officially vote on whether to become a state passed a congressional committee for the first time. Previous votes on statehood were not authorized by the U.S. government.

Despite being excluded from the general election, territories are allowed to participate in the presidential primary and caucus process. The Federal Register further explains: "The political parties may authorize voters in primary elections in Territories to select delegates to represent them at the political party conventions. But that process does not affect the Electoral College system." Already this year, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Puerto Rican Republican Party have held caucuses or primaries.

-D'Angelo Gore

Clarification, May 16: Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes, but they do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. Our original article did not make the distinction clear.

Sources

Office of the Federal Register. "Frequently Asked Questions: Can Citizens in US Territories vote for President?" National Archives and Records Administration Web site, accessed 6 May 2008.

Grim, Ryan. "Statehood for Puerto Rico?" Politico.com, 26 Feb. 2007

DeBose, Brian. "Puerto Rico eyes statehood status." Washington Times, 26 April 2008

Article II, Section 1, United States Constitution.

23rd Amendment, United States Constitution.