If Puerto Ricans choose statehood in their upcoming plebiscite, they could gain a Constitutional right they have never before experienced and one that has divided for decades U.S. citizens living in a state and those living in Puerto Rico: the right to vote.
Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have never had the right to vote because Article II of the United States Constitution grants the states, not the people, the ability to select the president. Citizens vote indirectly for the president by voting for state electors. Because Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, Puerto Rico, and by extension its residents, cannot participate in the election of the president.
This situation has created some surprises and uncomfortable – perhaps what many would even call “un-American” – situations:
- Puerto Rican members of the U.S. Armed Services, fighting side-by-side with fellow U.S. citizens in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to promote democracy abroad, cannot vote absentee along with their colleagues. Even military officers from Puerto Rico cannot vote for their Commander-in-Chief, while they can inform more junior soldiers of their right to do so.
- U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican descent who were born in a state and have lived stateside their whole lives lose their right to vote for president if they retire in Puerto Rico.
- U.S. citizens who are not of Puerto Rican descent who establish even temporary residence in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico lose their right to vote for President as long as they reside in Puerto Rico.
In Sanchez v. United States, U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico argued, unsuccessfully, in federal court that they should have the right to vote. In dismissing their claim, however, the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico reiterated that not all citizens have the right to vote because “the Constitution does not, by its terms, grant citizens the right to vote, but leaves the matter entirely to the States.” The Constitution therefore constrains the courts from remedying what the court described as the “inexcusable” circumstance “that there still exists a substantial number of U.S. citizens who cannot legally vote” in presidential elections.