Since 1967, six votes have been held in Puerto Rico asking people what type of relationship they would like for Puerto Rico to have with the United States. This relationship is commonly called Puerto Rico’s “political status.”
The six referenda on Puerto Rico’s political status – referred to as plebiscites – were held in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012, 2017, and 2020.
Today Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States. Under the U.S. Constitution, there are two other options for Puerto Rico’s political status: Puerto Rico could become a State of the Union, as Hawaii did, or a sovereign nation like the Philippines.
In recent years, Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory has come under increased scrutiny.
Congress has the power to end Puerto Rico’s territorial status by simply holding a vote.
Congress, however, is reluctant to act on Puerto Rico’s status. As an initial matter, members of Congress typically want to know how Puerto Ricans feel about their status options.
That’s where the plebiscites come in.
As the chart below shows, the plebiscites can be complicated. There have been many opinions in Puerto Rico over the years about how to structure a plebiscite ballot. The debates, which are ongoing, typically focus on which status options to include on the ballot and how to define those options.
|Noe of the above
Note: The 2012 vote had two parts. The first question asked voters whether they wanted to maintain Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory, commonly referred to as a “commonwealth.” Voters rejected that option by a 54-46 margin. In the second vote, 61.3% of the voters chose statehood from among the alternatives, 33.2% chose free association and 5.5% voted for independence. The U.S. Department of Justice later expressed concern with the presentation of free association as a status option for voters unless it is “clear that a vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence.”
Independence has never received much support in Puerto Rico plebiscite votes. 5.5% was the best showing it ever received. That happened in 2012. There is no reason to believe that Puerto Rico wants independence.
The end of U.S. citizenship in a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico is viewed as a major reason behind the unpopularity of the Independence option.
The people of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship in a 1917 federal law.
In the 50 states, people are guaranteed U.S. citizenship under the U.S. Constitution upon birth. This Constitutional guarantee is more secure than U.S. citizenship provided through a basic federal law, which only requires a majority vote in Congress to change.
Many Puerto Rican voters are concerned about losing their U.S. citizenship if Puerto Rico ends its status as a U.S. territory and becomes an independent nation.
As a sovereign nation, Puerto Rico could have bilateral treaties with the U.S.
There are three sparsely populated island countries in the Pacific Ocean that have relinquished control over their military and national security to the U.S. in rough exchange for minimal, temporary economic assistance and the ability of their citizens to work and travel to the U.S. without a visa. These bilateral treaties, which can be ended by either side at any time, are referred to as compacts of free association.
Free association is a variation of independence. At their core, both options involve sovereignty for Puerto Rico. This was made clear in the 2017 plebiscite ballot, which presented free association and independence together as one option.
Free association has also been offered to Puerto Rican voters as its own option on plebiscite ballots, separate from independence.
In 1998, free association received .3 of the vote, and independence received 2.6% of the vote.
In 2012, in a two-part ballot, 53.97% of the electorate voted to end Puerto Rico’s territorial status. In a follow-up question, over 60% of voters chose statehood, 33.34% selected free association, and 5.49% voted for independence. The increased interest in free association from 1998 to 2012 is consistent with the growing misperception in Puerto Rico that U.S. citizenship would be secure under a free association relationship.
Since 2012, interest in exploring the possibility of continuing U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans in a sovereign free association relationship has continued to grow. The new draft Congressional proposal seeks to extend U.S. citizenship eligibility throughout the duration of the first free association agreement.
The new proposal has not yet gone through the legislative process, where it can be expected to receive pushback from the State Department and House Foreign Affairs Committee. In addition, a free association agreement can end at any time by either party, jeopardizing even the most optimistic prediction of continued U.S. citizenship in a sovereign Puerto Rico.
No current compact of free association includes U.S. citizenship, and Washington has been clear that it cannot guarantee U.S. citizenship to a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico.
Statehood’s share of the vote has increased over the years from 39% in 1967 to 97.2% in 2017. Most recently, statehood received 52.52% of the vote in the 2020 plebiscite, which offered a simple up-or-down vote on statehood.
The three most recent votes – in 2012, 2017, and 2020 – resulted in statehood as the top choice. Each vote was certified by the Puerto Rico State Election Commission.
The popularity of statehood lies, at last in part, in the fact that U.S. citizenship under statehood is secured through the U.S. Constitution.
A recent federal proposal on Puerto Rico’s status that provides for a new plebiscite makes it clear that under the statehood option “U.S. citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico is recognized, protected, and secured under the U.S. Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all U.S. citizens born in the other States.”
The other two options on the proposal’s recommended ballot – independence and sovereign free association – do not contain similar language recognizing, protecting, or securing U.S. citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico.
Commonwealth has been the historical stumbling block for the resolution of Puerto Rico’s status. The term “commonwealth” means different things to different people, and it is constantly changing.
“Commonwealth” got a majority of the votes in 1967, when it was widely understood in Puerto Rico to mean an “enhanced commonwealth” with a vast swath of new privileges for Puerto Rico — a discredited idea that has been declared unconstitutional and impossible by all three branches of the federal government.
“Commonwealth” had a narrow plurality in 1993, but Congress could not act on that vote because the term was again defined in a way that was invalid under the U.S. Constitution.
The “commonwealth” definition on the 1967 ballot is different from the “commonwealth” option presented as a valid option to the Puerto Rican people in 1993.
In 2011, Congress’s official nonpartisan research resource – the Congressional Research Service (CRS) – made this point clearly in a chart describing Puerto Rico’s plebiscite history by adding footnotes to describe the variations of “commonwealth” options on ballots over the years.
More recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has stated that a plebiscite ballot should include a “commonwealth” option. DOJ used the term to represent the island’s current territory status. The Department of Justice has never endorsed the expanded “enhanced commonwealth” arrangement. Members of Congress and U.S. Presidents of both major national political parties have been clear over decades that an “enhanced” or “developed” commonwealth has no place on a plebiscite ballot.
Updated on Jan 28, 2023