Why Will the 2020 Plebiscite Be Nonbinding?

We have been writing about the upcoming 2020 status vote in Puerto Rico, and some of the issues that have come up around it. Many people are tired of holding status votes. The history of status votes, as the chart below shows, is a history of increasing preference for statehood. Statehood won in 2012 and again in 2017, and statehood voters may be frustrated by the lack of action from Congress. They may fear that another plebiscite will once again show that the majority prefer statehood, and Congress may ignore that once again.

A binding plebiscite?

One solution that has been proposed is to hold out for a binding plebiscite. All the plebiscites so far have been non-binding: that is, the vote is conducted and the results are shared with Congress, but then it is up to Congress to take action. No law compels them to act on the vote.

A binding plebiscite would be different. Congress would have to agree that if Puerto Rico voted for statehood, they would admit the Island. If Puerto Rico voted “no,” then Congress would not admit Puerto Rico as a state. Congress would just have to do what Puerto Rico asked for, whatever it was.

Legally, a referendum is non-binding. However, just as Great Britain’s government agreed to abide by the Brexit vote, Congress could promise to take action on Puerto Rico’s vote.

The new bill supporting this year’s plebiscite includes a plan for transition, with a timetable for action by Congress:

Should the Statehood “Yes” option be favored by a majority vote, a transition process shall begin forthwith to admit Puerto Rico into the Union, as described in Section 4.3 of this Act. This transition process, whether or not through the “incorporated territory’ mechanism, shall be implemented as soon as possible, but not later than one year after November 3, 2020.

If Congress approves the Act as it is written, they will give a promise in these words.


A plebiscite is a consultation of the will of the people. By definition, plebiscites are non-binding. Congress must take on the responsibility of settling Puerto Rico’s status. With a clear mandate from the voters, Congress cannot continue to avoid this responsibility.

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