Puerto Rico and Other Territories Vote in Primaries, But Not in General Election

by Elise Helgesen // Published March 19, 2012
Puerto rico pic

Puerto Rico held its Republican primary on March 19. Puerto Ricans are full citizens of the United States, but as a consequence of living in Puerto Rico, have no voting rights for the U.S. President or for the U.S. Congress – as detailed by Jo McKeegan on FairVote’s blog last summer. Fortunately, both major political parties have ensured that citizens living in the territories at least can play a meaningful role in selecting their presidential nominees.

Mitt Romney secured 83% of the vote as of Monday’s count, with Rick Santorum second with only 8% of the vote. Romney has also claimed recent wins in the other U.S. territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands, winning a total of 56 out of 58 delegates from these territorial contests - more delegates than allocated by Florida this year.

Although Puerto Rico would have distributed its delegates proportionally if no candidate earned at least 50% of the vote, contrary to what the Republican National Committee reported last winter, Romney won all but one of Puerto Rico’s delegates by winning an absolute majority, an apparent exception to the general RNC requirement that nomination contests held before April 1st allocate delegates proportionally.

Romney’s resounding victory on Sunday was due in part to how his campaign handled the precarious status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. Romney courted Puerto Rican voters by supporting the campaign for statehood and garnered the endorsement of Governor Louis Fortuña. On the other hand, Santorum angered many Puerto Rican voters by stating that in order to pursue statehood, the territory must embrace English as the official language.

Puerto Rico’s campaign for self-determination is important for many reasons, including an expansion of voting power. Currently, Puerto Rico’s residents may not vote in federal elections, except for a nonvoting delegate who has an office on Capitol Hill. Back in the early twentieth century, in a series of cases entitled the Insular Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that territories acquired during the Spanish-American war would not be granted the same rights, including voting rights, as U.S. states. The distinction between “state” and “territory” still plagues Puerto Rico even today, as the recent 2011 Igartúa v. United States case held that residents of Puerto Rico were not entitled to federal voting rights, and furthermore, that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandates equal suffrage and the right to vote for all citizens, was not binding on the United States.

The irony of the U.S. courts’ jurisprudence regarding Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories is that parties have decided that voters may participate in nomination contests, though they may not vote in the general election. The fact that candidates campaign in these territories underscores the argument for why these territories should have voting rights equal to that of any U.S. citizen. These territories are home to American citizens – citizens that serve and die in wars just as any other American does, and that live under the same federal constitution as all Americans do. The parties have recognized these realities; yet the country has failed to provide for voting rights in general elections.

That disparity did affect the contest in Puerto Rico, it seems. “If I can’t vote for the President of the United States, it’s useless to vote in the primary. They focus on Puerto Rico now to look for votes, then they forget,” one voter stated regarding the presidential candidates. Reflecting this sentiment was the relatively low voter turnout by Puerto Ricans in the primary – quite out of step for Puerto Rico compared to its high turnout in its general elections for its governor, which is among the highest in the western hemisphere.

Puerto Rico was granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. Similarly, the U.S. Virgin Islands was granted U.S. citizenship in 1927 and Guam in 1950. Furthermore, as U.S. citizens, these islanders may vote in federal elections if they live in a U.S. “state,” but not if residing on the island. The line drawn between voting rights and a lack thereof seems, at best, arbitrary.  As the November general election draws ever closer, the Republican nomination may not be certain, but one thing is clear: U.S. citizens in the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, will not be a part of it.