Puerto Ricans, upset at botched primary, demand answers

Puerto Ricans demanded answers Monday after botched primaries forced officials to reschedule voting at centers lacking ballots, an unprecedented decision being called a blow to the U.S. territory's democracy.

The island’s elections commission remained silent as anger and embarrassment spread across Puerto Rico one day after hundreds of voters were turned away from shuttered centers that for unknown reasons received ballots several hours late or never received them at all.

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It was the first time primaries have been halted and led many to worry that it has cracked Puerto Ricans’ confidence in their government and could affect the outcome of upcoming November general elections on an island with a voter participation rate of nearly 70%.

“That scar will never leave Puerto Rico,” said political analyst Domingo Emanuelli. “It was a hold-up of the country’s democracy.”

On Monday, Carlos Méndez, president of the island's House of Representatives, demanded that the commission release the results of the nearly 60 out of 110 precincts where voting was able to take place on Sunday.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez and other officials from Puerto Rico’s two main parties also have demanded the resignation of Juan Ernesto Dávila, president of the election commission. He has repeatedly declined comment via a spokeswoman but told WAPA TV on Monday that he thought the ballots would go out in time and that the electoral commission officials of the two main parties he met with a day before the primaries never mentioned the possibility of delaying them. He also said it wouldn't be responsible to resign amid an ongoing primary.

“Once the primary process concludes, I will analyze that,” he said.

Meanwhile, questions about why Puerto Rico held a primary if ballots were not available and how it was possible that no one knew about the problem until it was too late remained unanswered.

The electoral commission officials for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and the main opposition Popular Democratic Party did not return calls or messages for comment.

The primary is one of the most closely watched races in the island's history since it pits two candidates who served as replacement governors following last year’s political turmoil. Vázquez faces Pedro Pierluisi, who represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009 to 2017.

Pierluisi briefly served as governor after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned in August 2019 following widespread street protests over a profanity-laced chat that was leaked and government corruption. But Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that Vázquez, then the justice secretary, was constitutionally next in line because there was no secretary of state.

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Meanwhile, the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, which supports Puerto Rico’s current political status as a U.S. territory, is holding a primary for the first time in its 82-year history. Three people are vying to become governor — San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, known for her public spats with U.S. President Donald Trump following the devastation of Hurricane Maria; Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia; and Carlos Delgado, mayor of the northwest coastal town of Isabela.

A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico's finances dismissed accusations that the electoral commission did not have enough funding, saying it approved all of its funding requests.

“The disruptions ... are the result (of) inefficient organization at an agency that only two weeks ago struggled to procure the printing of ballots for an election that was originally supposed to take place on June 7,” the board said in a statement. “The State Elections Commission has sufficient money, and it has the more than enough staff to perform the one task it is charged with.”

While another primary is scheduled for Aug. 16, some expect lawsuits and legal loopholes to potentially upset those plans.

Edgardo Román, president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico, said the situation is in a legally gray area since it was never contemplated. A new date has to be set for those who didn’t get a chance to vote because the ballots never arrived, he said, but it’s less clear what will happen to those who didn’t return to centers to vote because they didn’t find out in time that the ballots eventually arrived.

“Everything has been rather abrupt,” he said. “We have had the worse electoral experience in the history of Puerto Rico.”

At least one voter filed a lawsuit against the commission and the electoral officials of the two main parties late Sunday via the American Civil Liberties Union. Pierluisi also filed a lawsuit against the commission and the two officials as he rejected its decision to hold another primary next Sunday.

The political upheaval was demoralizing to some, but Gireliz Zambrana, a 31-year-old federal employee who didn’t get a chance to vote on Sunday, said he would try again on Aug. 16 even though he is frustrated and said what happened is irrational.

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He stressed that Puerto Rico’s situation had to change: the island is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria and a series of strong earthquakes amid a pandemic and a 13-year economic recession.

“One has to go out and vote,” he said. “The only way to fix all of this is kicking people out.”