Why Puerto Rico Matters in the US Presidential Election

Territories Can't Vote, but Still Play an Important Role

Puerto Rico delegation at the Democratic National Convention.

Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer/ Getty Images

Voters in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories are not permitted to vote in the presidential election under the provisions set forth in the Electoral College. But they do have a say in who gets to the White House. That's because voters in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa are permitted to participate in the presidential primary and are granted delegates by the two major political parties.

In other words, Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories get to help nominate the presidential candidates. But voters there cannot actually participate in the election itself because of the Electoral College system.

Can Puerto Ricans Vote?

Why can't voters in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories help elect the president of the United States? Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that only states can participate in the electoral process. The U.S. Constitution reads:

"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."

According to Bryan Whitener, spokesperson for the Election Assistance Commission:

"The Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands) to vote for President."

The only way citizens of the U.S. territories can participate in the presidential elections is if they have official residency in the United States and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their state to vote.

This disenfranchisement or denial of the right to vote in national elections—including presidential elections—also applies to U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico or any of the other U.S. unincorporated territories. Although the committees of both the Republican and Democratic Parties in Puerto Rico select voting delegates to the parties’ national presidential nominating conventions and state presidential primaries or caucuses, U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico or the other territories cannot vote in federal elections unless they also maintain a legal voting residence in one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

Puerto Rico and the Primary

Even though voters in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories can't vote in the November election, the Democratic and Republican Parties allow them to select delegates to represent them at the nominating conventions.

The national Democratic Party's charter, enacted in 1974 and amended in 2018, states that Puerto Rico "shall be treated as a state containing the appropriate number of Congressional Districts." The Republican Party also allows voters in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories to participate in the nomination process.

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Puerto Rico had 51 delegates based on its population of 3.194 million people.  Twenty-two states had fewer delegates: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Arkansas, Maine, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, Idaho, Mississippi, North Datoka, Alaska, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Delaware.

Seven Democratic delegates went to Guam and the Virgin Islands and six to American Samoa. In the 2020 Republican presidential primary, Puerto Rico had 23 delegates. Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands each had nine.

What Are the US Territories?

A territory is an area of land that is administered by the United States government but not officially claimed by any of the 50 states or any other world nation. Most depend on the United States for defense and economic support. Puerto Rico, for example, is a commonwealth—a self-governed, unincorporated territory of the United States. Its residents are subject to U.S. laws and pay income taxes to the U.S. government.

The United States currently has 16 territories, of which only five are permanently inhabited: Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. Classified as unincorporated territories, they are organized, self-governing territories with governors and territorial legislatures elected by the people. Each of the five permanently inhabited territories may also elect a non-voting delegate or resident commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The territorial resident commissioners or delegates function in the same way as members of Congress from the 50 states, except that they are not allowed to vote on the final disposition of legislation on the House floor. However, they are allowed to serve on congressional committees and receive the same annual salary as other rank-and-file members of Congress.

Statehood for Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico statehood has been a topic of debate among the island territory’s residents for decades. To date, Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums addressing statehood, but no official decision has been made.

The divided opinion on statehood was evident in the most recent vote, conducted on Nov. 3, 2020, when 52% of Puerto Rico’s residents voted for statehood, while 47% of residents voted against it.

There are currently two bills in the U.S. Congress that address Puerto Rico's status:

Introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-New York) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act would call for local legislatures elected by the Puerto Rican people to hold statehood status convention. Delegates to the convention would be responsible for finding a permanent solution for the island’s territorial status.

Taking the more direct route, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, introduced by the island’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzalez (R-Puerto Rico) and congressman, Daren Soto (D-Florida) would simply incorporate Puerto Rico into the Union as the 51st state.

View Article Sources
  1. The 2nd Article of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center, constitutioncenter.org.

  2. Murriel, Maria. “Millions of Americans Can't Vote for President Because of Where They Live.” The World from PRX, 1 Nov. 2016.

  3. Roman, Jose D. “Trying to Fit an Oval Shaped Island into a Square Constitution.” FLASH: The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History, ir.lawnet.

  4. The Charter & the Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States. The Democratic National Committee, 25 Aug. 2018.

  5. Election 2020 - Democratic Delegate Count.” RealClearPolitics.

  6. U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Puerto Rico.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, census.gov.

  7. View 2020 Primary and Caucus Results.” CNN, Cable News Network.

  8. Team, FOX TV Digital. “What Role Do Caucuses and Primaries in Protectorates and Territories Play in the 2020 Election?” FOX 29 News Philadelphia, FOX 29 News Philadelphia, 4 Mar. 2020.

  9. U.S. Territories Map.” Geology, geology.com.

  10. United States Territorial Acquisitions.” Ballotpedia.

  11. United States Congressional Non-Voting Members.” Ballotpedia.

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Murse, Tom. "Why Puerto Rico Matters in the US Presidential Election." ThoughtCo, May. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/puerto-rico-matters-in-presidential-election-3322127. Murse, Tom. (2021, May 5). Why Puerto Rico Matters in the US Presidential Election. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/puerto-rico-matters-in-presidential-election-3322127 Murse, Tom. "Why Puerto Rico Matters in the US Presidential Election." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/puerto-rico-matters-in-presidential-election-3322127 (accessed June 6, 2023).