I was surprised to learn that Puerto Ricans, despite living in a US territory, were not entitled to vote in the presidential elections.

I was even more surprised to learn that US citizens are allowed to vote for president from anywhere in the world - EXCEPT if they happen to live in Puerto Rico.

What is the legal/political rationale behind this? What is it about Puerto Rico that magically removes one's right to vote? Has anyone ever challenged this?

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    I'm pretty sure it's not just Puerto Rico, but all unincorporated territories of the US, which would also include Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands and historically the Phillipines and the region surrounding the Panama canal. Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 15:25
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    @AustinHemmelgarn You are correct. PR just happens to be (by far) the most heavily populated such area in the present day (obviously, the Philippines was it became an independent country.) Other former territories include Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, all three of which maintain a Compact of Free Association with the U.S.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:40
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    The question as currently worded is intentionally confusing residence with nationality, and also avoiding mentioning the difference between American citizen vs American national. Now as to whether those distinctions should exist and why American nationals don't have the right to vote in federal elections, is perfectly legit political question. But let's be clear if that's what's being asked here.
    – smci
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:35
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    It might be useful to rephrase this as something like "An American who moves from California, or another state, to Timbuktu can continue to vote but one who moves to Puerto Rico cannot".
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 7:35
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    This question makes it sound like a Puerto Rican could vote if they made it to timbuktu...
    – dandavis
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:54

5 Answers 5


This is a peculiarity as a result of the federal nature of the USA and the exceptional position of Puerto Rico as a territory but not a state. Within the States and Territories of the USA, your voting rights depend on residence. If you leave the States and Territories your voting rights depend on former residence or inheritance.

In general most citizens of the USA are also citizens of a state of the USA. Since states don't issue their own passports, your citizenship of a state is determined by residence. If a New Yorker moves to Florida, they become Floridians, and so can vote in state elections in Florida, but can't now vote in elections in New York.

Now if our New Yorker moves to Timbuktu, this is treated slightly differently. They remain a US citizen and a citizen of New York, and so retain the right to vote in New York elections. Their children could also claim New York citizenship.

But Puerto Rico is both part of the USA but not a State or part of a State of the USA. When our New Yorker moves to Puerto Rico, they can vote in Puerto Rican elections but not elections in New York.

Now the nature of elections in the US is that there are no national elections There are statewide elections of Senators, Governors and Presidential electors. There are district elections of Representatives and there are local elections of many kinds. Our New Yorker has lost the right to vote in New York elections (just as they would have done if they had moved to Florida) but not gained the right to vote in Puerto Rican elections for Presidential electors (because there are none).

This is odd, but something similar is true if the New Yorker moves to DC. They cease to have the right to vote in elections to the Senate.

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    The military are very likely to be exceptions to this. A military family is posted to another state, (or territory) and not actually residing there
    – James K
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 19:27
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    It's more a matter of legal residence. If your New Yorker is working in Puerto Rico, but has not changed his residency, they could vote by mail in New York from Puerto Rico. This is the true analogy to the American working in Timbuktu. If they were to renounce their US citizenship, they'd get no vote at all. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 16:16
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    @Kevin Philosophically true, but e.g. Donald Trump lives in Washington and mail-votes through Florida. I suspect I could get away with living somewhere else for a few years as long as I maintained a residence in the state where I'm registered, or even a PO box. At any rate, my point was that if I'm temporarily in Puerto Rico or Timbuktu, I can vote remotely in my home state. OP was asking about the difference between an American in Puerto Rico vs. an American in Timbuktu, and I'm saying the difference is the assumption of residency, less than the physical location. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 17:28
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    @CristobolPolychronopolis: Trump will cease to live in Washington, DC on January 20 of either 2021 or 2025, depending on whether he wins the election. The White House is not his permanent residence, because it's time-limited.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:06
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    @Kevin I wasn't trying to make it about Trump, it was just an example of someone residing temporarily, but for a significant time, somewhere other than their legal residence. Such people vote in their home district (usually remotely). In this case, were he considered a DC resident, he would not be able to vote in the Presidential election; however, despite his current situation, his Florida residency allows him to vote in the Presidential election, even though DC residents don't share that right currently. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 19:05

The US doesn't have a presidential election. Get that idea out of your head. Instead, all 51 states* have their own presidential elections on the same day.

This selects a set number of electors for each state. Those electors get together weeks later, and they decide who is President.

To be eligible to vote, you have to be a US citizen resident in one of those states. Most (all?) states have mechanisms for allowing residents who have to be out of town during the election to vote (eg: in Timbuktoo or even in Puerto Rico). However, you have to have a state to send that ballot to.

Puerto Rico, like other US territories such as Guam and American Samoa, is not a state. Therefore, they (and people resident there) are left out of that system. However, as full-blown US Citizens, they are allowed to move to any US state of their choosing and vote there.

This is fundamental to the design of the US Constitution, and can only be changed through the Amendment process. However, how a state picks its electors is up to each state. A state could, out of the goodness of its heart, "adopt" a territory and let its residents vote in that state's election. However, unless something like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is adopted, that seems quite unlikely, as it would dilute the power of the state's own voters for that state's set number of electors. However, if the compact goes into effect, there'd be no real downside to doing that, so we could then see US citizens resident in territories being allowed to vote for President.

* - Technically there are only 50 states, but residents of the stateless federal district of DC are allowed to vote there as well, via a special constitutional amendment that was passed in 1960.

  • Just to be clear: a US citizen and resident of say LA, Ca, who is away from home during elections can vote from where they are. And it does not matter if they are in Puerto Rico or in France?
    – Ivana
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 10:29
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    @Ivana - Well, I don't know the absentee voting laws in CA. I know for an Oklahoma resident that would formerly be true assuming said person could find someone to notarize the ballot. However, the notarization requirement got struck down by the state courts recently. So yes, an Okie could fill out their absentee ballot from anywhere in the world and mail it in.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 12:45
  • @T.E.D.: Indeed, being able to do that is the point of having absentee ballots. Or was until the coronavirus made in-person voting a risky business.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 17:56

"What is the legal reason why an American visiting Timbuktu can vote for president but an American resident of San Juan cannot?"

An American who is a resident of San Juan, and who is visiting Timbuktu, can not vote for president.

The US has a concept of "states" and a concept of "territories". There are various differences, particularly in relation to taxes and voting.

The answer to the question "what is the 'legal reason' that residents of territories do not vote for president?" is simply "because it is the law", a historical issue.

The issue of the exact details of what determines "residency", in the US, in various territories/states, is a detailed issue often seen discussed in (say) a tax discussion.

The issue that Americans can (or can't) vote while visiting overseas locations such as Timbuktu is completely fatuous and irrelevant.

Regarding the curiosity "which state (/territory, /city, /county etc) does a US citizen vote as if in, when, overseas for many years", this is the common issue and it's simply (what else could it be?) your previous address.

Here's a detailed and clear explanation of the details about US'ers who live overseas for a long time:

Short article

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    "The "reason" for any law is a historical issue; migrate the question to history.SE." If that were the criterion, this site would not exist. The whole point of a politics site is for questions about why the law is what it is or why people want to change it to something else. Questions about what the law is belong on law.se, not here. Yes, most politics is rooted in history to one extent or another, but that doesn't make it not politics.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:30
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    @reirab ; I see, do you mean a good answer here would more literally given chapter and verse of the laws in question ??
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:04
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    No, I just mean that the reason a law exists is perfectly on-topic here. The reasons laws are what they are or why people want them to be something is pretty much the definition of politics. There's no need to migrate a question about the reasons for a law to history.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 7:08

Residents of Puerto Rico are not entitled to vote because Puerto Rico is part of the United States commonwealth. A territory part of the US Common wealth is "An organized United States insular area, which has established with the Federal Government, a more highly developed relationship, usually embodied in a written mutual agreement", according to the Department of Interior. Moreover, an "insular area" is "A jurisdiction that is neither a part of one of the several States nor a Federal district" (from that same DOI link).

Hence, because it isn't a state nor a federal district, it does not have any voting rights in Congress, nor does it have electoral college votes. The exception to this rule is the District of Colombia which was awarded electoral college votes via the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution, in 1961.

US citizens who live abroad are entitled an absentee ballot as stated on the website of the Department of State. More specifically, "U.S. citizens living outside of the U.S. register and vote in the state and county where they last established residence (domicile) in the U.S. before moving outside of the country", cf. here. As such, a US Citizen living outside of the US whose previous residence was in a US State or in a Federal District is entitled to vote when they live abroad.

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    That's because they're registered to vote in their previously known address in the US. For example, when I lived in Europe, I was still registered to vote in Florida (although my residency address was in Europe), but I kept my right to vote as a Florida resident.
    – ChrisR
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 4:35
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    Not every American has a previously known address. For example, an American born abroad. Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 4:39
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    "a US citizen in Africa ... writes his residence as "Africa"..." You do not write "Africa" as your "residence". You write your official domicile, which is your last residence in the US. Fully explained in a million places online: vhd.overseasvotefoundation.org/index.php?/ovf/Knowledgebase/…
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 16:00
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    @CodyBugstein Not unless they move to a state first. Your citizenship within the U.S. is determined by where you live or last lived within the U.S. Your citizenship within the U.S. also determines which U.S. elections you can vote in and whether or not you will be subject to the income tax (among a host of other things.) Puerto Rico has consistently voted against becoming a state because becoming a state would mean that they would be subject to U.S. federal taxes, among other things.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:33
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    @CodyBugstein, I'm a notch surprised that you keep asking the same question in the comment although it has been answered in my answer (with several sources) and by another person (without sources). To vote, you must be a citizen of a US state or DC (23rd am.), being a citizen of the United States is not sufficient. You maintain that citizenship when you move overseas. If you are a citizen of an insular region which isn't in a US state, you cannot vote. A resident of PR moving overseas is still not a resident of a US state, and therefore cannot vote.
    – ChrisR
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:44

Because Americans in Timbuktu pay federal income tax, unlike those in Puerto Rico, and there's "no taxation without representation." D.C. residents get to vote for president for the same reason.

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    Interesting. So an American planning to move abroad should move to Puerto Rico first to avoid paying income tax? Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 3:40
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    Surely, then, DC will get a senator any day now? Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 11:28
  • No. Only states may elect senators and representatives to Congress. The Constitution would have to be amended to make that happen, or DC would have to become a state. Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 11:19

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