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And Yet More Confusion over “Commonwealth”: Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite History

Three referenda held in the 20th century to provide Puerto Ricans with self determination were inconclusive due to confusion over “Commonwealth” proposals that are different from the current governing arrangement and different from one another and were later determined by Federal officials to not be viable.

The list below summarizes the three status plebiscites that were held in Puerto Rico in the 20th century, and their outcomes.

July 23, 1967

  • 60%                 Commonwealth with some national government powers
  • 38.9%              Statehood
  • 0.6%                Independence

Legislation for this proposed Commonwealth option was rejected by the President and Congress in 1976.

November 14, 1993

  • 48.6%              Commonwealth with autonomy from federal tax laws, and greater tax, trade, and social programs benefits
  • 46.3%              Statehood
  • 4.4%                Independence

Within a year after this vote, Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly petitioned Congress to either: (1) implement the commonwealth status option as defined on the 1993 ballot, or (2) adopt a federal measure to clarify the specific status alternatives Congress is willing to consider.  Congressional committee leaders and the Clinton White House determined that the “Commonwealth” proposal could not be implemented for constitutional and policy reasons and because it had not been supported by a majority vote.

In 1997, the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly again petitioned Congress but with a more direct request: to pass a federal referendum law clarifying the possible terms by which Puerto Rico could achieve a non-territory status.  The House passed such a bill (H.R. 856) on March 4, 1998.  This legislation would have provided the people of Puerto Rico with a choice among the established, federally recognized options of self determination: the current territorial status, statehood, independence, and nationhood in a free (voluntary) association with the United States.  The legislation was blocked in the Senate, however, which pledged to consider a Puerto Rican choice of a status option other than the present status.

December 13, 1998

  • .06%              Current territory status
  • .1%                  Free association
  • 2.5%               Independence
  • 46.5%            Statehood
  • 50.3%            None of the Above [supported by voters who supported Enhanced Commonwealth, free association, and independence]

Click here to access a chart prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that summarizes these results.

After this plebiscite, President Clinton established a task force to more clearly define Puerto Rico’s options and advise on proposals for a process for a Puerto Rican status choice.  In December 2005, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status – which was by then under the direction of President George W. Bush – announced its recommendations:

  • Congress should provide for periodic plebiscites to provide Puerto Ricans with a choice between the current territory status and a status other than territory.
  •  If a majority opts to pursue status other than territory, Congress should provide for a plebiscite among statehood, independence and, if Congress chooses, nationhood in free association with the U.S.
  • Congress should implement statehood or a nationhood status if chosen.


3 thoughts on “And Yet More Confusion over “Commonwealth”: Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite History”

  1. Pingback: Legal Scholar Responds to Puerto Rico “Self-Determination” Bill | My News Links - - Current News

  2. What the Puerto Ricans need to do is have an Island wide vote for independence, nothing else. The Island of Puerto Rico and its people were taken by force, and kept by force by the people of the United States of America. The USA’s Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) FBI, terrorized the Puerto Ricans throughout 10’s, 20’s, 30’s and the 40’s of the twentieth century: It’s first elected Governor was a NYC’s, Bronx trained opium addict, likely backed by the USA’s greatest terrorist of the twentieth century, J. Edgar Hoover. The vote for independence, to be fair to all Puerto Ricans, must total 75% of the total eligible voters. If the 75% threshold is met, then the USA’s Government must do it very best to help Puerto Rico’s in its quest for total independence.

    However, if the vote is less than the 75% threshold, then the PR government and the USA Government need to find another solution. Puerto Rico’s current status: Unincorporated Territorial, Commonwealth is not the solution.

    Richard Francis McDonald, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

  3. Not sure where the 75% threshold came from for statehood approval. If that IS the real number then Puerto Rico will never achieve statehood. I cannot think of any political situation that would require a 75% approval. I would think that a 2/3rds majority would be acceptable. That is the normal majority percentage requirement on important decisions. Some things only require a majority approval but this is by far a more important decision than a simple majority.

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