PR51st received a suggestion in an email. “Please announce that you are running for President in 2020,” a reader wrote. “Your candidacy would highlight the unfairness of Puerto Rico not being a state. Since you are a natural born American citizen over 35 years of age, you can serve as President of the USA. However, you can’t vote for yourself in the general election because you do not live in a state. It would be great if you win, but even if you lose, it will benefit the movement to make Puerto Rico our 51st state.”
There would certainly be a nice touch of irony there. We can think of several good candidates for the U.S. presidential race living in Puerto Rico. But first, can someone born in Puerto Rico be a candidate for president?
A natural-born citizen
U.S. presidents must be natural-born citizens, according to the U.S. Constitution.
In 2013, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer joked about the issue in a hearing about the Supreme Court budget. Speaking to Rep. Jose Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico, Justice Kennedy said, “We’re waiting for your case on the Puerto Rican presidency to come to us, but you also have to be 35 years old, don’t you? Have you met that requirement?”
Serrano laughed that he could double that age soon.
“I know many possible people from Puerto Rico … who could be elected,” said Breyer, remarking later that he had not yet given an opinion.
“You have not given an opinion, and nobody here would write that,” responded Serrano, “but let me just say my exploratory committee is coming together in the next half hour.”
Serrano pointed out that the Senate had passed a clarifying resolution when Senator John McCain ran for president. A clarifying resolution, sometimes including language such as “a resolution clarifying any potential misunderstanding,” doesn’t change law. It simply makes a point about the current law clear.
In this case, the clarification was that John McCain was a natural-born citizen even though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. The Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States from 1903 to 1979.
Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United States.
Sen. Barry Goldwater was born in the Territory of Arizona. He ran for president. Though he lost, his citizenship was never questioned during his campaign.
The part of the Constitution that tells us about this requirement is Section 1 of Article 2. Here’s what it says:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
It is possible that this means that a candidate from Puerto Rico would need to live in a state for 14 years before running.
However, Puerto Rico, as a territory of the United States, might be “within the United States” for the purpose of establishing a right to run for president.
Assume it works
Suppose a great candidate arises in Puerto Rico. During her candidacy, she can speak and bring attention to the position of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory. She can vote for herself in her party’s primary in Puerto Rico. When the presidential election takes place in November of 2020, she can’t vote. She can make the point that her fellow Islanders also can’t vote.
In 2021, if she wins, she can celebrate statehood with the rest of Puerto Rico. She will probably be the first President of the United States who didn’t vote for herself.