Why Does Puerto Rico Get A Primary?


This weekend, you'll be hearing a lot about a tiny, out-of-the-way place that normally has to get hit by a natural disaster to get our attention. Such is the wonder and magic of primary season.

I'm not talking about some quiet town in the middle of Tornado Alley, though. On June 1, all eyes are on Puerto Rico, the small Caribbean island that will send 63 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, even though its residents don't get to vote in the general election.

What gives?

In November's general election, only residents of the 50 states (and, since the 23rd amendment, the District of Columbia) get to vote. The primaries, however, are run by state and local governments, and caucuses are run privately by political parties. Since Puerto Rico has a local government and political parties, both events are fair game, and residents of Puerto Rico participate in the nominating process of both major parties and send delegates to each party's national convention. Other organized territories like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands do the same.

What else do Puerto Ricans get to do? Here's a quick history lesson.

All the land that is part of the U.S. but isn't part of a state, the District of Columbia or assigned to a Native Nation has historically been designated as a territory. The modern generic term for these regions is insular area (which is also applied to freely associated states), since territory is now more narrowly defined by the federal government as an insular area under the jurisdiction of the United States. These territories can be"¦

incorporated (under the jurisdiction of the United States, over which Congress has determined that the United States Constitution is to be applied to the local governments and residents in the same way it is applied to those of the states)...


unincorporated (under U.S. jurisdiction, over which Congress has determined that only select parts of the U.S. Constitution apply)...

...and may also be...

organized (where Congress has explicitly granted self-government through an Organic Act, which normally includes provisions for the establishment of a Bill of Rights for the territory and the framework of a three-branched government)...


unorganized (without direct authorization of self-government)...

"¦and all of them can put "Made in the U.S.A." on their products.

Today, the U.S. has only one incorporated territory—the Palmyra Atoll, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the Department of the Interior. Among our numerous unincorporated territories, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands hold the status of "commonwealth."* This means "a self-governing, autonomous political unit voluntarily associated with the United States"). This term doesn't seem to have any significance beyond labeling them as one type of unincorporated, organized territory and is mainly a matter of politics. It comes from the English translation of Puerto Rico's official name (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). A literal translation of its name in Spanish, "Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico" would have been "Associated Free State of Puerto Rico," and since it actually isn't in a Compact of Free Association with the U.S., "Commonwealth" was substituted.

So what does all that mean for Puerto Rico? Well, among other things"¦

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"¢ Most sections of the Internal Revenue Code don't apply there. Residents don't pay federal income taxes unless they do business with the federal government or run a business that sends funds to the U.S.. All residents do, however, pay other federal taxes like payroll taxes (social security and Medicare) and import/export taxes.

"¢ United States federal law is applicable to Puerto Rico.

"¢ They are not represented by a U.S. Representative or Senator, but by a Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives who has the right of voice and can vote in the Committee of the Whole, but does not have a full House Vote.

"¢ Puerto Ricans residing in the United States have all the rights and privileges associated with residing in a state.

*To anyone living in the Commonwealths of Virginia, Kentucky, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania who might be concerned about territorial status and voting eligibility: Don't worry. You live in a regular State that simply decided to refer to itself as a commonwealth a long time ago as a matter of political theory. The Kentucky state government's website, for example, says that at the time Kentucky was petitioning for statehood, the term meant that "all power was vested in and derived from an equally free and independent people rather than a hierarchical and/or feudal system under a king." It was a way of saying that the people were running the government, and not the other way around.