Ballot Shortage Halts Puerto Rico Primary

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Puerto Rico had to halt its primary scheduled yesterday after widespread ballot shortages at polling places around the island, leading to a rescheduled vote and calls for the chief election official to resign. The Associated Press has more:

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.

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.”

The territory’s election head reportedly said he would step down after the primary in response to widespread and bipartisan calls for his resignation:

Gov. Wanda Vázquez and other officials from Puerto Rico’s two main parties demanded the resignation of Juan Ernesto Dávila, president of the election commission. He declined comment via a spokeswoman but told NotiUno radio station that he would resign once the primaries are over, saying it would be irresponsible to step down before that.

There are abundant questions about why and how a primary was allowed to occur without enough ballots in many locations – with a federal control board strongly dismissing suggestions that it was for lack of funding:

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…

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 more than enough staff to perform the one task it is charged with.”

The current plan is to try again next Sunday, but legal observers suggest there could be obstacles – especially in communities where voters went home but did not return because of confusion over availability of ballots and how to treat voters who were turned away but for who ballots were eventually available:

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 primary mess is another setback for a territory still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria and now facing significant challenges in the COVID-19 era. Here’s hoping the election commission (with or without new leadership) can untangle the mess and allow Island of Enchantment voters to cast their ballots very soon. Stay tuned …

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