Why cannot residents from United States territories such as the CNMI, Guam, and Puerto Rico vote in general elections? (They can, however, participate in presidential primaries.) It seems unconstitutional because residents from these places are also United States citizens and should be granted the right to cast their ballot for the next President of the United States just like everyone else in the fifty states.

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    there is more than just CNMI, Guam, Puerto Rico. if you have 6 minutes to spare there is a good video by CGPGrey talking about the various US Territories. There is incorporated/unincorporated, organized/unorganized... but there are also "associated countries" within the US border.
    – syn1kk
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 12:50
  • Comments deleted.If you would like to answer the question, please post a real answer. Don't use comments to answer the question. For more information on what comments should and should not be used for, please read the help article about the commenting privilege.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 8:26
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    Its so we don't conquer the whole world as each party tries to expand its voter base.
    – user20779
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 12:56

5 Answers 5


Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution begins:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors...

Until this section of the constitution is amended to read "Each State, Territory, or Federal District..." or to entirely rewrite the presidential election process to be based on citizenship of the individual voter rather than an electoral college whose members are determined by state laws, it is constitutional that residents of the territories cannot participate in presidential elections.

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    @DavidRicherby, inasmuch as the gist of the question is "Why is this not unconstitutional", showing that the constitution requires this ("them's the rules") is the why. That said, I'd be happy to read a historical answer ("Why did the writers of the constitution not consider or deliberately exclude potential future non-state voting weight?" "Why was the constitution not amended during the 19th century westward expansion?") that covers the why at a different level. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 10:53
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    @DavidRicherby There’s two different levels to “Why?” To me, the question seems to be asking “Why is this the case?”, to which the answer is “That’s what it says.” Then there’s the deeper question of “Why does it say that?”, which wasn’t part of the question , but would be a interesting followup here or on History
    – Bobson
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 12:56
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    @Bobson I don't understand why you think that the question of why US citizens who live in territories can't vote in presidential elections isn't a part of... well, the question of why US citizens who live in territories can't vote in presidential elections. "Why are you a vegetarian?" "Because I don't eat meat." "Ummmmmm." Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 14:25
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    Note that the Constitution was amended back in 1961 to give the District of Columbia (which is not a state) votes for President.
    – dan04
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 2:40
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    Why the hell is everyone here being so pedantic? Obviously part of the question is "why are the rules like this". OP quite clearly is interested in the justification behind the decision.
    – ESR
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 5:09

Even though there is already an accepted answer to the question there is a lot of dissatisfied comments so I looked into it.

The short answer is that the designated representatives assigned to govern each territory did not want to be part of the US government for various reasons as different from each other as the people that make up each territory.

As stated in the comments, outside of the original 13 colonies that rebelled against England, each territory has become part of the US government in a way shown in the Constitution. Those territories however have a different path than any of the territories that I think your question is asking about.

The Louisiana purchase, lands west of the Mississippi up to those forcibly annexed after the Mexican war became Incorporated Territories and then went on to become states. With the exception of the Palmyra Atoll which is the only incorporated territory remaining. The importance of this distinction is that incorporation is the only way that the full power of the Constitution is in effect.

To contrast, the territories you are asking about (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Northern Marinas Islands) are all unincorporated, so the US constitution does not apply there. Before I explain that, for completeness I will say that these are the 5 inhabited territories, there are several un-inhabited territories but I think the point is moot since there are no people there. Further, of the five inhabited, except for American Samoa, are organized under laws of their own making.

What this means is that each territory got a government together and made decision on their own future from a point of view of both the territory and the US government. To belabor the point, there were two parties to the relationship versus the single government point of view of incorporated territories. Please do not take this simplistic explanation to minimize the intense issues around each organization agreement. There was bloodshed, trickery, tears and anything else that goes on when something this big occurs. The point is that each encounter was independent of the others with a government representing the people of the territory and congress representing the interest of the US.

Each organization agreement was separately negotiated and an agreement was reached with questions answered including: Are the people of the territory US citizens? How will they be represented in the Federal Government of the US. However, the territory is still a party apart from the Nation. This is why it would make no sense for the people of those territories to participate in the election of what is basically a foreign government with an intimate treaty.

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    Why participate in Presidential primaries? If territories view the US as a foreign government, is that how the US views the territories? If so, why would the US even consider permitting people of of a foreign government to participate in US Presidential primaries?
    – BobE
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 15:50
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    You make it sound like it's entirely the territories' decisions not to become states, but the existing states also have a choice in that matter -- they have to let them into the union.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 17:40
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    "so the US constitution does not apply there." It's not quite so simple. Some parts of it do, while others don't. At any rate, this really doesn't answer the question of why territories weren't granted Congressional representation or Presidential electors in the Constitution. The Constitution was written in 1787. The doctrine of some parts of the Constitution not applying to unincorporated territories wasn't established until the Insular Cases in 1901.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 22:25
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    Also, the distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories is kind of irrelevant to answering the question posed here as neither is granted any electoral votes under the U.S. Constitution. Even if the Constitution fully applied to unincorporated territories, they still wouldn't have electoral votes as the Constitution only grants those to states. Even the District of Columbia - the capital district of the United States in which Washington is located - did not have any presidential electoral votes until the Constitution was amended to explicitly grant it electoral votes in 1961.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 22:35
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    It should be noted with respect to BobE's comment that primaries are not something in the Constitution or even required. It's how certain state political parties chose to select delegates to the party convention. Heck, there's no reason why a party even needs to have states send delegates (see the Democratic Party and the superdelegate debate)
    – pboss3010
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 12:03

I think the currently selected answer is the best answer, and quite rightly accepted. However, for those who don't think it goes deep enough, perhaps this will help a bit.

Daddy, why can't our family living in {US territory X} vote in the Presidential Election?

There isn't really a US presidential election. Get that idea out of your head. Instead every state holds its own Presidential election. Within limits, this is done by their own rules, with their own ballots, under their own supervision, using their own resources. By tacit agreement, all 50 of them do it on the same night. Each state effectively gets a number of (electoral) votes equivalent to the number of Congressmen they have (House and Senate). The winner of that secondary vote is elected President.

But why can't people residing in territories vote in that too?

That's the way the Constitution is written. Elector selections are done by states. To get a vote on a state's electors, you'd have to have some specific state to send your vote in to. Even if they wanted to vote absentee, residents of Guam or Puerto Rico have no US state to send their vote to.

But why was it written that way?

The people drafting it didn't want a direct popular vote for President. This was the next best option, and the proportion of representation used had already been negotiated when they were voting on how to make up Congress.

In fact, originally, there wasn't even necessarily a vote. It was left up to states how they picked their electors. Many of them just had the Governor or the state legislature pick people. So the state legislature would typically just send over electors for whoever the party in power wanted. If the people living in that state didn't like that choice, well that was their fault for electing that legislature.

Daddy, you're scaring me!

Don't worry. We don't do it that way any more. Since the Civil War every state has had an actual popular election.

But wait! If we can change it, why not just change it to a popular vote?

Changing the Constitution is not trivial. It is usually decades of work, and it has to run through the exact same State and Congressional gauntlet that currently benefits from the current setup. So a change would be unlikely unless a supermajority of states and Congressmen feel it would be beneficial, and definitely not detrimental to their partisan interests. That ain't today, where one party has held the White House for 3 of the last 5 terms, despite losing "the popular vote" in all but one of those elections.

Is there anything else that could be done?

Well, since how electors are picked is indeed up to individual states, there are some loopholes.

Some states have experimented with not making their states winner-take-all with electors. Typically this means they do the easy thing and use the congressional district boundaries to select electors within their districts. The problem with this is it relies on partisan gerrymanders that can themselves be seriously undemocratic.

Another theoretical solution would be for the states to collectively agree via legislation to select only electors pledged to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than their local state vote. If they did that, they could include votes cast by US citizens resident in territories (and there wouldn't be much reason not to). The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is the current political manifestation of this idea. Mathematically it only requires sign-ons from enough states to represent a majority of the Electoral vote. They currently have about 64% of the required elector-states signed on, with legislation pending in enough to theoretically bring it up to 89.6%. It wouldn't take a lot to push this over the edge, and then the Electoral College could be nothing more than a weird little historical footnote, with no practical significance.

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    Most of this post answers an entirely different question / set of questions.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 10:57
  • "Changing the Constitution is not trivial. It is usually decades of work..." I agree with almost everything except that. If there is sufficient will, that should definitely be possible much faster. There is no inherent mechanism to make it that slow, or is there? Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 16:28
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    @Trilarion - The process that is typically taken requires 2/3 approval from both houses of Congress, and the 3/4th of the states. The land-speed record for that last phase appears to be about 3 months, but the worst was 202 years, and the median appears to be in the vicinity of 2 years. But of course before that both houses of congress have to approve it, and before that language has to be come up with which is capable of garnering that much support in both houses of Congress. If you count in the time all those phases take, calling it on the order of a decade seems reasonable.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 18:17
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    @Trilarion ... but regardless of if you agree with my rough estimate, the main point of it was its not trivial task. The Compact would be far eaiser to pull off to reach the same goal as it effectively only requires the last step (agreement from the states), and the bar is lower (A majority of EC votes, rather than 3/4 of states), and its already almost done. Certainly if the Compact can't be pulled off, then a Constitutional Amendment couldn't either.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 18:27
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    There actually is "a" Presidential election. It's just that it's held in December, and there are only 538 people who can vote.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 17:20

The other questions have answered the legal and political, but I wanted to answer the historical as it sets context:

Established 1787, the US constitution guaranteed the rights of Americans living within states to vote on a president. It was unlikely back then that the American founders, primarily focused on trying to unify divided states and protect against tyranny, wouldn't have anticipated the US acquiring additional territories, especially given the idea of colonialism - something they had freed themselves from - would have seemed so repulsive.

But acquire additional territories the US did. In April 1899, more than 100 years later, the US acquired Puerto Rico as a result of the American-Spanish war, through the Treaty of Paris. It was an island previously controlled by the Spanish. Rather than upset the locals, the US government essentially allowed it to self-rule rather than immediately absorbing it into the US. It didn't even establish a means to elect a governor until 1952. On the flipside, the Puerto Ricans don't pay any federal income tax.

Similarly, the US also got Guam in 1899... in the exact same treaty. The Mariana Islands were also effectively associated with Guam, and with the Spanish loss of Guam to America in the Spanish-American war, also meant America acquired the Mariana Islands in the same time period.

Like with Puerto Rico, the US didn't formally establish anything with Guam until 1950, with the Guam Organic Act. It's delays were primarily due to result of WWI (1914 - 1918) and WWII (1939 - 1945) and their subsequent recovery periods, especially considering Japan captured Guam early on during WWII in 1941, and wasn't freed until 1944, 6 years before the act was passed.

American Samoa followed an eerily similar pattern, with the Tripartite Convention resulting in half going to America in 1899 and the other half Germany (the German half is now an independent Samoa, not to be confused with the American half). Several of the islands that weren't controlled by either signed agreements to fall under US control by 1900, more than 113 years after the constitution was written. Despite introducing an Organic Act in 1949 to integrate Samoa within US politics, the Samoa chiefs living in the American half themselves actually defeated the bill, and by definition is self-governing, and thus opts not to involve itself with US politics.

The US Virgin Islands were acquired by the US at a later stage, during WWI in 1916, sold to them by the Danish. The US passed the appropriately named Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands in 1954, which like Puerto Rico and Guam, gave them the ability to vote for a governor.

So essentially, the cause for why they don't have a right to vote for a president is a two-parter: when the constitution was first drafted, those territories weren't under US control at the time, and it was unlikely the drafters of the constitution could have imagined America obtaining additional territories, and made no provisions for it.

Similarly, because of the recent nature of the acquisitions, there were no legal frameworks established to allow for any sort of voting for governors until at least the 50s, with two world wars even delaying it in some cases, and internal disagreements resulting in rejection in others, the system just hasn't gotten around to implementing it yet, as it raises some difficult questions on what constitutes a state.

In contrast, it took roughly 200 years (between when America was first discovered to the first constitution being drafted) before Americans even had a right to vote or even a president to vote for.

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    "it was unlikely the drafters of the constitution could have imagined America obtaining additional territories, and made no provisions for it." They did make provision for incorporations, which applied, e.g., to the Louisiana purchase.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 16:47
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    Doesn't this answer pretty much ignore how 37 of the 50 states came to be? i.e. the entire Westward expansion of the U.S ?
    – Mr.Mindor
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:35
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    I don't find the assertion that the Founding Fathers didn't anticipate obtaining additional territories very credible. After all, the 13 Colonies/States grew to 15 very shortly after the Constitution went into force. (See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) I think there has to be a different reason that they didn't provide for adding territories. I don't know enough about US history to know what that reason was but suspect it was political, perhaps fear of reminding existing states their power would be lessened as the country grew.
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:30
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    If the Founding Fathers had not expected expansion, they would not have put a provision in the Constitution to add new states to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase was an expansion long before the ones you mention, and that land has been divided into states. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 22:06
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    I found the first paragraph very confusing until I realized there is an extra negation. It should say either “likely [they] wouldn’t” or “unlikely [they] would.”
    – prl
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 8:22

It seems unconstitutional because residents from these places are also United States citizens and should be granted the right to cast their ballot for the next President of the United States just like everyone else in the fifty states.

It's not unconstitutional because you have two options

  1. Make your territory a state (with mixed results)
  2. Move to a state. As US citizens they can (and do) do this

Remember, the President is selected by electors but, more importantly, by the House of Representatives should the electors fail. So even if they were given an elector in the college, if something happened (like an electoral college tie) they do not have Representatives in the House and would wind up just as disenfranchised.

  • Enfranchisement means that it's possible for your vote to affect the results, not that it does. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 17:09

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