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Court Rulings Could Open Door To Aspiring Political Parties

BY Iván Román

July 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The chorus grows louder and it's making some shake in their boots.

Now it's not just one, but two federal judges in San Juan who have ruled part of Puerto Rico's election laws unconstitutional, possibly opening the doors for new political parties to be created and their candidates to appear on the ballot.

And now with the most recent ruling last week, three groups are just waiting for the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to hear arguments Monday on an issue they hope will profoundly change this island's electoral landscape.

"Now there's a better chance of prevailing in Boston and make them change the election laws," said Enrique Vázquez Quintana, a former health secretary who, disgruntled with the current political scene, has been trying to establish the Civil Action Party since 1997.

His group, which leans toward seeking more autonomy for Puerto Rico, won a victory last March when U.S. District Judge Héctor Laffitte said the process to certify a new political party hinders freedom of speech and violates the prohibition against states abridging a citizen's rights.

Requiring that the 100,600 endorsement signatures be notarized was too costly, the judge ruled, constituting an unreasonable burden. In Puerto Rico, only lawyers can notarize documents, and at $15 to $80 a pop, getting the needed endorsements carries a price tag of at least $1.5 million.

In this latest ruling, U.S. District Judge Daniel Domínguez echoed Laffitte's points, even quoting his colleague. The State Elections Commission, he ruled, can authorize "ad hoc notaries" to check the photo identification cards of those who sign the petitions for the group involved in his case, the pro-environmental Limpieza Ciudadana, loosely translated as Citizens for Cleaner Environment.

"This is not a complex task that requires special training or skill," Domínguez wrote, quoting Laffitte. "There is no reason to believe that attorneys who happen to be notaries are somehow more adept than non-lawyers at reading and verifying an individual's license or passport."

Critics say the island's three political parties -- the Popular Democratic Party, which defends the current commonwealth political status; the pro-statehood New Progressive Party; and the Puerto Rican Independence Party -- set this major hurdle in place in 1977 to hold the electoral system hostage and perpetuate themselves in power.

But the government argues that the requirements -- approved after several in a crowded pool of political parties in the 1960s and '70s failed to garner enough votes to maintain their accreditation -- are needed to prevent fraud. Changing the law, SEC lawyers argue, would open up doors to organizations "without a minimum of popular support" to participate in the electoral process.

Besides the political, there are economic implications as well. Each SEC-certified party gets $1.5 million a year in public money, plus another $3 million for its candidate's gubernatorial campaign during the election year.

Taxpayers don't relish the thought of paying more to feed what has become an increasingly shrill political scene. But critics say the three existing parties have created a self-perpetuating "partyocracy" that demands alternatives. The increasingly blurred lines, and sometimes conflicting interests, between government and party politics have some looking for change -- particularly independent voters, often the swing vote, who number 400,000 and counting.

"Frankly, the [current] parties' lack of credibility and their impertinence to the people make them more and more useless every day," said Julio Muriente, who heads the Pro-Independence Movement, which is not part of the PIP. "What we need are men and women who are committed to the people and not to a political party, and who don't see this as a way to get a nice-paying job."

As grass-roots, environment-friendly, or religious-based civic groups demand more space on the public stage, the option of having an official voice in politics becomes more appealing, particularly if it now becomes easier to do.

Approached by activists eager to continue wielding influence solely reserved for political parties, some leaders who helped spearhead efforts to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques say they would consider a run for a seat in the Capitol. So would some in conservative religious groups irate over the Legislature's and the U.S. Supreme Court's elimination of the sodomy law, a cause pushed by gay-rights advocates.

But not everyone covets adding more voices to the island's political chorus.

"We're so saturated by politicians and so smothered by this situation that our country can't handle any more," said Billy Guzmán of suburban Guaynabo, who called in to a radio show to oppose more political parties. "What we have to do is instill some values and awareness in voters to make better choices."

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