The Puerto Rican Commonwealth, the ACLU, and the U.S. Government: The Story Behind Limited Voting Rights in Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican Commonwealth, the ACLU, and the U.S. Government: The Story Behind Limited Voting Rights in Puerto Rico

By Victor Reynoso ’26

Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898, and its residents have been considered American citizens since 1917. However, as a U.S. Territory rather than a state, it does not have representation in Congress nor the right to elect representatives to the Electoral College. In recent years, arguments for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state have drawn renewed interest on the island and in Congress, but this has been hotly debated for more than half a century. This post will examine the events that have led to the current political status on the island, the people involved, Puerto Rico’s political parties, the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the decisions made by the United States Government in the mid-20th century.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established on July 25, 1952, giving it an autonomous government while still maintaining a relationship with the United States. On July 23, 1967, Puerto Ricans voted on whether they wanted the island to become independent, to become a state, or to remain as it was. According to many U.S. officials, the commonwealth was a special status that only this small island in the Caribbean “enjoyed,” since it allowed Puerto Rico to continue to wave its own flag while its inhabitants were considered American citizens. However, it also prevented Puerto Rico from receiving federal funding for infrastructure and social welfare programs, having representation in the U.S. House and Senate, or having the right to vote for the President and Vice President of the United States, among other things. Even so, Puerto Ricans still had legal obligations to the federal government, like male registration for the draft at 18.

Two people sitting in a room with a Puerto Rican flag on the wall
Princeton University students seated near a Puerto Rican flag, Third World Center, ca. 1970. ¡Adelante Tigres! Latino Alumni Conference Collection (AC455).

Meanwhile, organizations like the ACLU, which played a major role during the mid-20th-century’s Civil Rights Movement, were questioning various restrictions on voting. Conflicts over voting rights rose to the federal level. Congress debated whether to abolish the Electoral College, a decision that would have allowed all American citizens to vote for the President and Vice President, regardless of residency. Peurto Rican nationalists saw the potential for increased voting rights as a political move that would strengthen the relationship between Puerto Rico and the federal government. These nationalists completely opposed any measure that would give Puerto Ricans the right to vote for the President and Vice President because it signaled the possibility of statehood.

A drawing of a palm tree with text reading "Territorial Areas Administered by the United States"
Territorial Areas Administered by the United States pamphlet, 1964. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 1187, Folder 1.

During the 1960s, some Puerto Ricans and elected officials in Congress criticized the commonwealth status, since it created conflict between the autonomous judicial system of the island and the federal judiciary. To solve this and other problems, many politicians advocated for statehood. Luis A. Ferré had been pushing for this for years.

In a confidential 14-page document dated March 15, 1966 found in the Roger Nash Baldwin Papers, Miguel A. García Méndez and Ferré explained the current situation and how they “fail[ed] to see” how Congress and the government of the United States would submit to the “judicial equality” of Puerto Rico. Furthermore, they said,”… we must confess our inability to solve this political riddle” and they pointed out that “… even if Congress could find a way to do it, we should not forget that such a relationship could not be really permanent and final…” They reasoned that while Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth, neither independence nor statehood would be completely eliminated as an option for the island, thus making the commonwealth status a transitional state.

After presenting this “political riddle,” they wrote that independence was not an option seriously considered by either Puerto Ricans or the U.S. government. Then, they addressed the results of the last general election in Puerto Rico:

“In the last general election the Puerto Rican parties favoring a permanent union with the United States polled around 97% of the total vote, which constitutes a clear expression of the feelings of the people of Puerto Rico at present against independence, and for this reason we consider unnecessary to dwell on it at length now, though we consider it a legitimate sovereign status.”

They moved on to the next possible solution for the island: statehood. “Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States since 1917, and they have written in their local Constitution that their American citizenship and their determination to enjoy its rights and privileges, individually and collectively, are determining factors in their lives. The only way to attain that end is thru [sic] Statehood.” Puerto Ricans had been drafted to fight in foreign lands and had migrated from the island to many parts of the country, settling in different states, enriching American culture, they noted. Additionally, they highlighted how Puerto Rican history had been forever changed by the United States, stating that “During sixty-eight years Puerto Rico has developed in all fields under the American flag.” To Méndez and Ferré, Puerto Rican history was the same as American history. They wrote about the similarities among Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii and established how the economic growth of Puerto Rico would improve, as happened with Alaska and Hawaii after statehood. Puerto Rico would benefit from becoming the 51st state, they asserted, and in the long run the other states would, too. Because the Puerto Rican economy would benefit from the influx of cash from the United States, in return Puerto Rico would become an economy able to pay taxes and contribute to the union. Culturally speaking, Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States were intertwined in their view. Lastly, they pointed out that traveling between Puerto Rico and the contiguous United States was a short trip of three hours.

A map of Peurto Rico
“Self-Determination for Puerto Rico,” by Clarence Senior, 1946. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001).

Ferré’s continued support of statehood for Puerto Rico led to the forming of The New Progressive Party (NPP). One year after its creation, on August 20, 1967, the party won the gubernatorial election, as well as the majority of the seats in the Puerto Rican state legislature. An ideological shift took place, as the party that was now in control fully supported and campaigned for Puerto Rico’s statehood. However, many influential political leaders, like Luis Muñoz Marin, opposed Ferré’s vision for Puerto Rico. At the time, Puerto Rico’s form of government was relatively new, and its political landscape was composed of small political parties that had different visions from the island. Yet, even if a party did not represent a majority of the island’s population, leaders who were well-connected had a lot of influence and power. Only a handful of individuals were able to speak English on the island, allowing those who did to become influential in Congress, since they were the only ones who could communicate what the people of Puerto Rico wanted. As a result, when the U.S. government started to discuss a possible amendment to allow Puerto Ricans to vote in the Presidential elections, many anti-statehood political figures used their connections with the ACLU and U.S. government officials to prevent it.

In 1969, the United States Congress debated a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the Electoral College, leading to the election of the president and vice president by direct vote. An Ad Hoc Committee was tasked with conducting hearings and resolving the issue of Puerto Rican active suffrage during general elections. In these hearings, the ACLU took the stance that all citizens of the United States, regardless of where they resided, should be able to vote in the presidential election. Lawrence Speiser, who testified in these hearings representing the ACLU, wrote to Senator Birch Bay on May 6, 1969:

“We believe that all citizens of the United States should have an opportunity to vote, since the President and the Vice-President hold those offices as the public servants of all.

"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico--A House of Good Will," by Luis Muñoz Marin
“The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico–A House of Good Will,” by Luis Muñoz Marin, 1956. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 1178, Folder 13.

At the time, this was generally the view held by ACLU officials, including one of its founders, Roger Baldwin. However, after Puerto Rican political leaders heard about the ACLU’s position, they reached out to ask that they retract their statements and oppose this movement. Marin sent a telegram to the ACLU, on May 14, 1969, just days after Speiser sent his letter. Marin requested that the ACLU change their position because “A plebiscite…was held in Puerto Rico on July 23, 1967, to decide whether the people of Puerto Rico wanted to continue with commonwealth status or whether they wanted to change to statehood or independence.”

By mentioning this, he argued that because the citizens of the island did not want their political status to change, they did not want the right to vote in presidential elections. His rationale was that if Puerto Ricans are given the right to vote, this would also mean that they are a step closer to statehood, something that Marin fully opposed. It is important to note that the plebiscite held in 1967 did not ask the citizens if they wanted voting rights during presidential elections, only if they wanted to change their political status. However, Marin still used this plebiscite as the basis for his argument. He may have done this because the ACLU had previously said that they would stand for whatever the majority of the people of Puerto Rico wanted.

Marin explained: “It is the position of this party [the Popular Democratic Party (PPD)], [that] the development of the internal powers of the people of Puerto Rico over their own internal affairs, has a priority.” By saying this, he posited a division between the United States and Puerto Rico. He argued for this separation while contending that the people of Puerto Rico have no interest in the events happening in the United States, although the commonwealth status did not grant independence. The policies implemented by the federal government would have an impact on the island and its citizens. In addition, he presented these arguments as the PPD’s position, not the party in power.

The main problem with Marin’s claims was that the PPD relied on assuming that Puerto Ricans’ voting rights in national elections meant that they were a step closer toward statehood. Their assumption that the actions taken by the Executive Branch would not affect the island’s internal policies presented a problem for the people of Puerto Rico. As a result, the telegram created conflict within the ACLU. A letter from Alan Reitman, Associate Director of the ACLU, to Roger Baldwin said, “… Marin feels that our support for the right of all citizens to vote in a presidential contest will support the statehood crowd and hurt the position that he and others hold on retaining commonwealth status.” Reitman understood how the support for voting rights could be perceived as support for statehood. Until now, Puerto Ricans had supported maintaining the commonwealth, thus the contentions in this telegram were cause for concern.

Newsletter with the seal of Puerto Rico as an illustration over the headline, "Ad Hoc Committee Named to Recommend Changes in Commonweatlh Status"
Puerto Rico newsletter, 1973. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 1187, Folder 1.

Baldwin was known among the political leadership of Puerto Rico due to his frequent trips to the island to teach and lead many ACLU initiatives. Consequently, his opinion would carry a lot of weight. He responded to Marin’s telegram, “We have always taken the position in regard to Puerto Rico that we will follow whatever a clear majority of Puerto Ricans want, and I presume we will continue to do so. I certainly will and in this case, it is quite clear.” We can assume that when he referred to a majority of the island, he was referring to the plebiscite. Other correspondence supports this interpretation, as many individuals within the ACLU wrote to Baldwin stating their discontent with his position against active suffrage for Puerto Ricans. 

Other Puerto Rican politicians and lawyers reached out to the Ad Hoc Committee to advocate against Puerto Rican voting rights in national elections. On August 13, 1969, Raul E. Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican lawyer, sent a letter in which he contextualized how the issue was viewed on the island, 

“In the first place, this is a hotly debated political issue in Puerto Rico. The party in power, the New Progressive Party, proclaims it. The Popular Democratic Party, The People’s Party, the Independence Party, and the Union Party, are against it.”

In other words, he argued that only one political party supported active suffrage. He tried to downplay potential popular support by showing the opposition to voting in presidential elections many of the political parties on the island had, although those four parties that “denounce[d] it” were not in power, and had lost the major political races on the island. In addition to this, he contended that,

“To involve Puerto Ricans in American presidential controversies without having, on the one hand, any legal right to congressional representation, and, on the other, any power to consent to veto specific federal laws, seems to me strange.” 

He did not fully explain why this would result in a negative situation for the parties involved. Indeed, regardless of representation in Congress, the office of the President still exercised power over the people of Puerto Rico.

Later in the letter, he cited the 1967 plebiscite to substantiate his arguments. He first acknowledged that the party in power supported statehood. Subsequently, he called the commonwealth, “the most sophisticated version of the autonomist goal.” He claimed that the commonwealth is the best resolution to the status of the island–an opposing view to Ferré’s claim that while statehood and independence are on the table, the commonwealth will always remain a transitory status. In addition, many politicians in Puerto Rico and the federal government criticized the legal flaws that the commonwealth created within the judicial system; critics also questioned the validity of Puerto Rican sovereignty if they were bound to follow the Constitution of the United States above their own.

In the end, the Ad Hoc Committee considered all of these arguments and ruled in favor of allowing Puerto Ricans to vote in presidential elections. However, when the recommendation made its way to Congress, it did not lead to a constitutional amendment. Instead, President Nixon and the governor at the time, Rafaé Hernandez Colon, appointed a second Ad Hoc Committee that would reconsider the matter. In the second committee, Luis Muñoz Marin was appointed as one of the chairs. In 1975, this committee approved a recommendation against active suffrage for the American residents of Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, when the recommendation made it to President Gerald Ford in 1976, he rejected the proposal and suggested a new plebiscite that would ask the people of Puerto Rico if they wanted the right to vote in Presidential elections.

Since then, the idea of Puerto Rico becoming a state has gained support within the residents of the island and many other Americans. Although there have been many plebiscites that demonstrate that the people of Puerto Rico would like to be integrated as the 51st state, the federal government has not taken definite measures to move forward with this. Almost fifty years since Congress raised the question, it does not appear to be closer to becoming reality. As recently as December 2022, for the first time in history, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a binding referendum on the island that would determine the future status of Puerto Rico. However, the bill did not pass in the Senate. Currently, two more bills have been introduced, one in the House and one in the Senate.  Each bill would allow Puerto Ricans to determine their own future. It is still to be seen if this legislation will pass, and if the people of Puerto Rico will vote to become The State of Puerto Rico or if they would choose another path. Currently, on the island, the party in power and a majority of the population support statehood. However, due to the various non-consequential plebiscites that have happened in previous years, many residents believe that the island will never be granted statehood and question if the federal government has their best interest in mind.


¡Adelante Tigres! Latino Alumni Conference Collection (AC455)

American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

Roger Nash Baldwin Papers (MC005)