Thursday, October 29, 2020

FAQ: What is Puerto Rico? Is it part of the United States? (Updated)

It's 2020, and Puerto Rico is voting again on whether to become a state of the United States. But what exactly is it now? Is Puerto Rico part of the United States, and can its people vote in US elections? Find all your answers here! 

This is a revised and expanded version of an explainer we originally published in November 2012.

Is Puerto Rico a state of the US? If not, then what is it?

The US territory of Puerto Rico. (Public domain map from CIA World Factbook)
Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking island region in the Caribbean, is a United States territory, but not one of the country's 50 states. 

Since it was taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico has been an overseas territory of the United States (known in US legal jargon as an "insular area").  

Puerto Rico is also often called a "commonwealth" - a word from its official English name, the "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico" (no relation to the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire). The word "commonwealth" here is pretty much just a synonym for "democracy", referring to the territory's republic-style system of local government. Several US states also have "commonwealth" in their full formal names.


Is Puerto Rico a country?

Puerto Rico isn't an independent country, since it's under US control. But it is sometimes treated like a separate nation, participating as an observer in some international organizations (with US approval), and sending its own teams to the Olympics and FIFA soccer matches.


So is Puerto Rico part of the United States or not?

Technically, Puerto Rico isn't considered part of the US, even though certain laws treat it like it is (for example, it's included in the US for import and export purposes). Instead, the law says it belongs to the US as a type of possession called an "unincorporated territory".

Unincorporated territories are places where courts have said the US constitution doesn't apply unless and until the the US government says so. It's also possible for a territory to be "incorporated" as part of the country. Besides the 50 states and the District of Columbia national capital zone (Washington, DC), the only incorporated territory of the US today is the remote, uninhabited Pacific island of Palmyra Atoll.

map of Puerto Rico's location relative to the US
Location of Puerto Rico relative to the U.S.
Map by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons (source; CC BY-SA)
But in many ways Puerto Rico seems like a part of the US. Federal government offices have a major presence on the island, and its financial, postal, and telephone systems are integrated with the rest of the country. 

Although the territory has no voting representation in the US legislature, it does have a non-voting delegate, known as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.


Why is Puerto Rico not a state?

In short, because its people haven't firmly asked for it. Though the original decision not to make Puerto Rico part of the the US was based on blatantly racist court rulings in the early 1900s, its people voted in 1967 to remain a self-governing territory instead of a state.

Several referendums since then have been less conclusive. Support for Puerto Rico's current status has plummeted, but votes in 2012 and 2017 were carried out in controversial ways, failing to a get a clear picture of whether the majority of Puerto Ricans want to become a US state (more details in our article on the 2012 referendum).

But that might be about to change. In November 2020, Puerto Ricans will finally get the chance to vote on statehood with a simple YES or NO. And if they choose yes, there's a very real chance the territory could become a state in the coming years. To learn all about what's happening, how things might turn out, and how Puerto Rico would compare to the other 50 (or 51) states, check out our explainer on the 2020 Puerto Rico statehood referendum.

Are Puerto Ricans Americans?

Yes. Anyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically a US citizen. They're also citizens of Puerto Rico - but since this second citizenship isn't from an independent country, they have to use US passports to travel internationally. 

Although their citizenship is granted by the US legislature and not guaranteed by the US constitution, today Puerto Ricans are legally considered Americans in every way. That includes eligibility to serve in the US military, where quite a few of them have risen to high ranks. But voting is a different story...

Can Puerto Ricans vote in US elections?

It's complicated. Since Puerto Rico has no senators or voting representatives in the US legislature, residents of Puerto Rico don't have any way to vote for representation in the US government. 

Similarly, since the president of the United States isn't elected through a popular vote, but by electors appointed by the states and the District of Columbia (DC), Puerto Rico residents aren't able to vote in the main presidential election.

Flag of Puerto Rico Territory Name:  
• Puerto Rico (English, Spanish)
Official Name:  
• Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (English)
• Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Spanish)
Capital: San Juan

But notice that we said Puerto Rico residents. Since all American citizens have the right to live anywhere in the US, a Puerto Rican who moves to one of the 50 states can vote for president or legislators there instead. And many do move - some even serve in the legislature as representatives of their new states. 

It also goes both ways: If an American from the states moves to Puerto Rico, they can't vote for legislators or the president unless they're still a legal resident of one of the states or DC (or if they're in the military). Former residents of the states who live overseas would qualify to vote from abroad, but in the voting laws Puerto Rico doesn't count as "overseas" - another case of it being treated as part of the US even though other laws say it technically isn't (see above).

All that said, residents of Puerto Rico actually do have a bit of influence over the choice of US president: The presidential primaries, where the two major US political parties let voters choose who their candidate for president will be, are separate from the electoral college, and the parties allow Puerto Rico to participate in those.

In March 2016, voter majorities in Puerto Rico chose Marco Rubio over Donald Trump to run as the Republican candidate for president, and Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. In July 2020, Joe Biden received the most votes to represent the Democrats against President Donald Trump.


Can a Puerto Rican be president of the US?

Probably. People born in Puerto Rico are usually considered "natural-born" US citizens, which qualifies them to run for president - but only after living in the states or DC for at least 14 years (living in Puerto Rico doesn't count). 

There's a common misconception in the US that the constitution clearly excludes people born outside the country from becoming president. What it actually says is that the president must be a "natural-born citizen", a phrase that's interpreted different ways by different legal experts. 

Many think it includes anyone who gets citizenship based on the circumstances of their birth, whether that's from being born inside the US, being born abroad to US parents, or being born in a territory like Puerto Rico. Some do argue that anyone born outside the the US proper would be excluded, but they seem to be in the minority, and the question has never been firmly settled by either the courts or the legislature.

Does Puerto Rico pay US taxes?

Yes, but with one massive exception: Most Puerto Rico residents who make their money within the territory get a special exemption from the federal income tax. However, they still have to pay several smaller or less common federal taxes, like Social Security, business taxes, and estate taxes

Puerto Rico's territorial government also levies its own taxes, including an income tax and a sales tax, on residents of the islands.

What kind of government does Puerto Rico have?

Map of the municipalities of Puerto Rico
Municipalities of Puerto Rico (click to enlarge). Map by NordNordwest & Kmusser (source). License: CC BY-SA

Currently, Puerto Rico is a constitutional republic like each of the 50 states - however, as an "organized territory" instead of a state, its government's authority doesn't come from the US constitution. The US legislature had to pass legislation specifically allowing Puerto Rico to write its own constitution, and technically has the power to take that privilege away again if it wanted.

Like the 50 states, Puerto Rico has its own elections, with a democratically-chosen governor and two-chamber legislature. Any American citizen can vote in Puerto Rico, as long as they've lived there for at least 30 days. Federal law also requires that US citizens who have moved from Puerto Rico to another country be allowed to vote by mail in Puerto Rican elections, just like people who move abroad from one of the 50 states. 

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