Puerto Rico and Federal Status Legislation, 1952-2012

On November 6, the residents of Puerto Rico will have an opportunity to vote in local island-wide general elections and a status plebiscite. The 2012 plebiscite provides electors with a two-stage vote on the future status of the island. The first stage asks electors to choose between continuing the present Commonwealth or territorial status (Yes) and changing it (No). The second stage provides electors with a choice among three alternative status options, namely statehood, independence, and a non-territorial relationship described as a ‘Sovereign Free Associated State’ (http://www.ceepur.org/es-pr/Paginas/Plebiscito-2012.aspx). Like prior status laws enacted by the Puerto Rican legislature in 1993 and 1998, this plebiscite is not authorized by Congress and is non-binding on the Federal government.

The United States has governed Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory for more than a century. Between 1898 and 1901, the United States created a new territorial status enabling the Federal government to selectively govern Puerto Rico as a foreign country for domestic or constitutional purposes. In 1950, Congress enabled Puerto Ricans to draft a local constitution and subsequently submit it to an island-wide referendum. In 1952, after a contentious parliamentary process, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of the new constitution and the establishment of a ‘Free Associated State,’ loosely translated as a Commonwealth. While the new constitution provided for greater local self-government and administrative autonomy, Congress unequivocally established that the new political arrangement did not change the territorial or constitutional status of Puerto Rico.

After 1952, Puerto Rican electors have gone to the polls on three occasions to vote in a status plebiscite. In 1967, Congress enacted Federal legislation authorizing the government of Puerto Rico to hold a plebiscite and enabled the island’s residents to choose among three status options, namely affirming the Commonwealth status, choosing statehood, and/or independence. A majority of electors voted to affirm the Commonwealth status (60.4%) over the statehood (39%) and independence (0.6%) options.[i] Puerto Rican lawmakers subsequently enacted legislation providing for two additional status plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 without congressional authorization. Although no status option garnered a clear majority of the votes in the 1993 plebiscite, the Commonwealth (48.6%) option received more votes than the statehood (46.3%) and the independence (4.4%) options. Subsequently the leadership of the Puerto Rican Popular Democratic Party (PPD) or the Commonwealth party capitalized on popular anger at the pro-Statehood government for wasting money on a plebiscite and organized a boycott of the 1998 plebiscite mobilizing voters to choose the ‘None of the above’ option. A combination of the PPD’s campaign and below average turnout enabled the “None of the above” option to get 50.3% of the vote effectively nullifying the outcome of the plebiscite

Simultaneously, since 1952 Federal lawmakers introduced, debated, and in some cases voted on, 68 additional status and plebiscitary bills.

Total Puerto Rico Federal Status and Plebicitary Legislation
Source: United States Congressional Record Index, Law Library of the Library of Congress


It is important to note why the introduction of Federal status and plebiscitary bills peaked during the 1960’s and then again in the 1990’s. The bills debated during the 1960s mostly aimed at either affirming the 1950-1952 process or at negotiating different versions of the 1967 plebiscite. In contrast, lawmakers debated a substantive number of status and plebiscitary bills during the period of the late 1980’s and the decade of the 1990’s following international pressure from the United Nations’ Decolonization Committee to grant Puerto Rico the opportunity to engage in a process of political Self-Determination. Lawmakers across party and ideological lines introduced a wide array of plebiscitary bills including the infamous Johnston and Young Bills during this period in order to challenge status legislation pushing for the Self-Determination and independence of Puerto Rico.

Since 1952, Federal lawmakers have introduced a wide range of bills including: organic or territorial laws directly changing the status of the island; referendum legislation asking local residents to affirm or reject a status option; and plebiscites that provide electors with an opportunity to choose among multiple status options. A fraction (3 bills) of the legislation introduced in Congress opposed either a particular status option (Enhanced Commonwealth) or do not specify a status outcome.

Total Federal Legislation by Status Option (%)
Source: United States Congressional Record Index, Law Library of the Library of Congress


The majority of Federal bills provided for one of three status options, namely statehood (27.9%), independence (22.1%) or a variance of territorial autonomy (Commonwealth) (11.8%). Statehood bills include legislation that: would ‘incorporate’ Puerto Rico and place it on a path to eventual statehood; enable the island to develop a state constitution as a precondition for admission into the Union; and in most cases simply providing for the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Post-1952 independence legislation encompassed two types of bills, namely bills providing for the independence of the island and bills enabling Puerto Ricans to exercise a right to self-determination. Territorial autonomy bills include a wide range of statuses that affirm variations of the Commonwealth status, ranging from the affirmation of a ‘permanent union’ with the United States to a non-territorial or Enhanced Commonwealth option.

In contrast, almost two-thirds (38.2%) of all bills debated in Congress provided for a plebiscite enabling voters to choose one of the three status options (or a variant thereof). For example most of these plebiscites contain the typical option to choose both for independence or statehood, but included a variant of the Commonwealth status option that emphasized different degrees of autonomy or enhanced political powers.

The majority of the multiple option plebiscitary bills (25 out of 26) were introduced in the late 1990’s and after. In many ways, this trend reflects a lack of political consensus among Federal lawmakers stemming from the polemical Johnston and Young bills debated during the late 1980’s and early to mid 1990’s. It also reflected growing divisions between advocates of the traditional Commonwealth status and a growing desire by others to enhance the political powers of the Puerto Rican government while curtailing the plenary authority of Congress to administer the relationship between the Federal government and Puerto Rico.

In sum, while it may be difficult to predict the electoral outcome of the 2012 Puerto Rican status plebiscite, especially when the vote is being held along with the island-wide general elections, the legislative history of these debates suggests two possible outcomes in Congress. First, lawmakers are not likely to accept the outcomes of a status plebiscite that was not authorized by Congress. Second, the growing lack of consensus among federal lawmakers, a lack of consensus which can be traced back to the late 1980’s, is likely to result in a failure to support a status option other than the traditional Commonwealth.

[i] Electoral data for Puerto Rico is available at the Comisión Estatal de Elecciones, Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (http://www.ceepur.org/es-pr/Webmaster/Paginas/Eventos-Electorales.aspx).

Charles R. Venator-Santiago, PhD is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.

Yazmin A. Garcia Trejo is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut

The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.