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Orlando Sentinel

Florida, Let Puerto Rico Show You How To Run An Election

Iván Román

October 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With all the worries that fill everyone's life on this small island in the tropics, at least there is one headache causing migraines in Florida that we don't have.

We know how to run elections. And we count every single vote.

Yes, that's right. Every single one.

I know it can be a mind-boggling concept to those caught in the inner hell of Florida's election system. During the eight years I lived in the Miami area, I dutifully went to the polls for every local, state and national election. And I naively thought they actually counted my votes.

It wasn't until George W. Bush and Al Gore supporters spent weeks berating one another in Florida two years ago that I realized my vote, at one time or another, likely turned out to be a hanging chad. Or worse yet, that the machine -- for no logical reason -- just didn't count all the little holes I had punched.

Here, bewildered by a smothering government bureaucracy, worried about good schooling for children, annoyed by Miss Universe from Russia handing back the crown she won in San Juan, I can at least sleep well at night knowing they counted my vote and everyone else's.

How do I know? They're all on paper, counted by hand, one by one, under 90,000 pairs of watchful eyes. And given that virtually everyone old enough to vote in Puerto Rico is registered -- some 2.5 million people -- and between 80 percent and 90 percent of them go to the polls, that's a big feat. Even with the lower voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections, about half of a proportionately smaller voting-age population, the count in many states never seems to be complete.

So we don't see embarrassing pictures of candidates waiting for hours to vote -- candidates such as Janet Reno who, at least in part, blames mechanical and human error in Miami-Dade on her defeat in Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

And while official results in her race weren't known for days, and for weeks in the 2000 presidential contest, in Puerto Rico the winners in 2000 were dancing in the streets by 9 p.m., six hours after the polls closed.

"Puerto Rico is considered to be one of the best-organized systems, and we turn to Puerto Rico as a resource," said Richard Soudriette, president of the International Foundation for Election Systems, which helps emerging democracies create, fix and refine their election systems.

"We send [elections officials from Puerto Rico] not only to Latin America, but all around the world," Soudriette added. "Voter education is one of the best in the U.S. By the time they get to the polls, the voters have no questions about how to vote, which are some of the problems they had in Florida."

Voters get so involved and educated in Puerto Rico because so much is at stake. Aside from plebiscites and referendums relating to the island's political status, voters come out just once every four years to choose all 1,020 elected officials -- one governor, one resident commissioner, 27 senators, 51 representatives, 78 mayors and 862 municipal assembly people. In this political patronage system, that means control of a lot of jobs and money.

So to pull this off, each of the three major parties recruits workers for every polling place, an army of some 90,000 well-trained people. Election law meticulously establishes who will check voters off lists, who will handle the invisible ink to prevent fraud, and even who will give the voters the pencils.

And when it's time to count, they all watch, counting quickly while protecting their party's and society's interests, and then calling, faxing or e-mailing results. Those watching are not just the poll workers. Stores are closed and no one works on Election Day, offering few distractions. Only emergency workers and prisoners vote ahead of time.

"It's an efficient and effective system that until now has kept elections transparent and clean," said Juan R. Melecio, a judge who bolstered and refined the system while presiding over the State Elections Commission until his retirement last year. "With a system of checks and balances like that, it's very hard to steal an election."

Nevertheless, even in Puerto Rico, technology is knocking at the door. Officials are slowly phasing in the use of optical scanners that make counting easier later on -- 150 were used in a special legislative election last Sunday. But that's still a far cry from the paperless touch screens that cost Florida millions of dollars to get up and running for their rocky debut this year.

"New machinery alone doesn't run elections," Melecio said.

Don't Floridians know it.

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