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The Cost Of Democracy

Over two million voters will elect a new government administration in a matter of days. The island’s most important democratic process will have cost taxpayers $77 million.


October 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Every vote counts

Transparency, easy voter access, and faster results are the promises of the State Elections Commission for the Nov. 2 general election and for the future.

Elections have been called Puerto Rico’s No. 1 sport, and next Tuesday, Nov. 2, about 85% of the over 2.4 million registered voters (or some 2.04 million) are expected to head to the polls to elect a new government that will take office in January 2005.

After casting their ballots, they will sit in front of their televisions to await the results, many of them unaware that the electoral event culminates a $76.7 million, yearlong, islandwide operation by over 65,000 people.

Despite the enormous investment of taxpayer dollars, Puerto Rico still could do much more to improve one of the most respected and trustworthy electoral processes in the Western Hemisphere. On an island where millions of electronic banking transactions are conducted every day, where one half of the population owns a cellphone, and where the rate of Internet penetration is quickly approaching that on the U.S. mainland, over two million voters still choose their leaders by making pencil marks on a paper ballot.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS interviewed the main players behind the Puerto Rico elections—not the candidates—and learned that innovations are needed to enhance transparency and serve constituents better.

The president of the State Elections Commission (SEC) since 2002, former Judge Aurelio Gracia, is confident these innovations are on the way. He is counting, for example, on the agency adopting an automatic ballot-counting method for the 2008 general election—or perhaps earlier, since the two major parties foresee midterm voting regarding the island’s status.

In the meantime, the SEC has made it easier for citizens to exercise their right to vote by allowing home voting and has implemented a speedier ballot-counting process. It is important for Puerto Rico to have a clear idea of who will be the new governor and resident commissioner within three to four hours of the island’s 7,175 polling units closing at 3:00 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 2.

"People will know who will be the next governor in the early evening [of Election Day]," said Gracia.

To speed the ballot counting, he explained, the results for governor and resident commissioner will be reported separately from the results for legislative and municipal offices. Gracia said counting the votes for governor and resident commissioner is simpler since most people vote straight party-line tickets. Voters have a greater tendency to cross party lines when choosing legislators.

Gracia also noted the SEC’s new headquarters and unified operations center in Hato Rey have electric generators and computerized security systems to protect the agency’s databases. (Two decades ago, the SEC had operations in about a dozen buildings scattered around San Juan.) The Permanent Registration Boards aren’t as well equipped, since many of their offices are in commercial or office buildings.

SEC takes voting outside polling units

Gracia said this will be the first time Puerto Rico voters who are hospitalized or physically handicapped will be able to vote from home or the hospital, thanks to his Easy Access proposal. "On Sunday, Oct. 31, the election process at hospitals and residences will begin," he said.

These voters are disabled, elderly, or hospitalized patients who wouldn’t be able to get to a polling unit on Nov. 2. To ensure the transparency of the process, a team of at least four people—SEC personnel and delegates from each of the three parties—will visit island hospitals, homes, and hospices to collect the votes of the 6,900 people who have requested the service.

The process will be like the one at a traditional polling unit: Each person must have his or her proper voter identification to vote. He or she will sign the register, will have a finger marked with indelible ink, and will vote in private.

"This initiative places Puerto Rico’s electoral system at the forefront once more," said Gracia. According to him, Puerto Rico’s electoral process is already an example for many other jurisdictions because of its transparency, high participation rate, and high number of people who vote according to the candidates as opposed to the parties, meaning they could cross party lines to vote for a particular candidate.

Gracia said prison inmates will also vote on Oct. 31. Their votes and those of the 6,900 elderly, disabled, and hospitalized will remain sealed until Nov. 2.

The SEC will also have some 50 Easy Access voting sites for the elderly or disabled at the polling units. Gracia said the SEC had acquired new access ramps and worked with the Advocate for People with Disabilities to identify the best voting locations for the physically challenged. Blind voters will receive ballots printed in braille, and magnifiers will be provided to legally blind voters.

These initiatives of the SEC are in accordance with the federal Help Americans to Vote Act (HAVA), enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2001. The law provides federal funds to improve the electoral processes in the U.S. and its territories. The SEC has received $3.5 million under the law and could receive another $36.5 million once its working plan is approved by the federal government.

Technology is on the way

Gracia said technology is the answer to speeding the election process while preserving its transparency, especially since the parties have trouble recruiting volunteers to work on Election Day.

"It isn’t easy to find volunteers willing to work 12 or 24 hours during Election Day. In addition, equipment will speed the counting, reducing the work of the volunteers [and providing faster results]," said Gracia.

"We tried to launch a pilot program of automated counting in Dorado and Manati.... The SEC called for a bid to conduct the pilot project this year, but only one bidder from Europe submitted a proposal," said Gracia. "We know there are companies in the States that offer the service, but all of them are in great demand because of the federal elections."

Gracia’s predecessor, former Judge Juan R. Melecio, who headed the SEC for over 10 years, agrees Puerto Rico must implement new technology to speed the election process. "The technology exists. There are options for electronic voting and automated counting, and there are several examples of their effectiveness—in Brazil and on the U.S. mainland, for example," said Melecio.

"Technology would solve the deficiencies in our electoral process, which is complex and time-consuming since it depends heavily on humans. If we can conduct monetary transactions through the Internet or an ATM [automated teller machine], this is viable," added Melecio. He noted, however, that the three parties would have to agree on whether to choose electronic voting, automated ballot counting, or both.

"Any of the new strategies to be implemented, especially if they are technology-related, must ensure the credibility of the process," said Electoral Commissioner Juan Dalmau of the Puerto Rican Independent Party (PIP).

The NPP’s electoral commissioner, Tomas Rivera Schatz, also believes Puerto Rico is ready for electronic voting and automated ballot counting, which are already being used in other countries. In fact, the SEC used optical readers (AccuVote devices) to count the votes during the special primary in 2002, according to the agency’s budget for fiscal 2005. The equipment reduced the ballot-counting time from several hours to five minutes. "Puerto Ricans are ready to move forward and vote using more modern techniques such as electronic voting. The real concern lies in how reliable [these technologies] are, especially at the time of counting the votes," said Electoral Commissioner Gerardo Cruz of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), who noted that paper ballots are a better reference should there be a need to recount votes.

"The PDP favors integrating more technologies, but the consensus [in the PDP and in the SEC] is toward selecting an automated counting process, but not an electronic voting one," said Cruz.

Already, the SEC has invested several millions in technology to improve the electoral process, including a new, digital voter card and a revamped website. Gracia said the agency had invested $2.3 million and issued 350,000 new voter registration cards in the past five months, which will speed voters’ identification and enhance the security of and confidence in the election process (CB May 6).

The SEC’s website now has five forms available for download, including one to request absentee voting and one to request Easy Access voting. Visitors may also verify which polling unit they should go to on Election Day.

The agency has also invested in a new barcode inventory system to assist in preparing the more than 10,000 briefcases for the election, each containing 20 items such as ballots, forms, pencils, and voter lists. Puerto Rico’s system was based on the one used in the Dominican Republic. Now, some 150 briefcases can be prepared per hour while ensuring their integrity from assembly to distribution at the polling units.

"The personnel working at the [polling units] will also receive voter lists with voters’ pictures for identification purposes. The lists will serve as an auditing instrument during the election year, as many of the voters’ records at the SEC have outdated pictures," said Gracia. "This new register will become the official one for the next electoral event, once we update voters’ pictures and include their demographic data."

In pursuit of greater voter turnout

In the past two decades, over 80% of the voters registered with the SEC have turned out for five general elections. The participation rate has declined, however, since 1984, when 88.9% of registered voters cast their ballot.

Although the number of registered voters is lower than it was in 2000, nearly 95,000 voters who were inactive have updated their status. This leads politicians, analysts, and top SEC officials to believe the participation rate will rise considerably this year.

Nevertheless, the SEC may face more of a challenge getting voters to turn out since the 2003 primaries were tainted by allegations of irregular proceedings. "The allegations...were part of the dynamics of a political campaign. SEC auditors investigated the matter and concluded that everything was conducted according to the established procedures," said NPP’s Rivera Schatz. "The [general election] process will be transparent; I don’t have any doubts about that.

"Our electoral process is based on mistrust," he added. "That principle guarantees transparency because all of us [the major parties] must approve the decisions and participate in every process."

Dealing with bureaucracy

The same principle also guarantees Puerto Rico’s electoral process is complicated by bureaucracy. Former SEC President Melecio said the government must seriously consider if it has the economic resources to maintain such a complex system, especially given the creation of new political parties.

As Melecio explained, the SEC includes three electoral commissioners, each with equal power, and a president, who rules when there is dissent among the commissioners. The SEC has 110 offices throughout the island, and each commissioner has 200 to 250 employees divided among these offices who handle tasks such as voter registration, data entry, and preparation of the briefcases for Election Day. The SEC has another 300 employees who handle administrative duties or specialized tasks such as managing the computer systems.

In a nonelection year, the SEC’s budget averages $32.8 million. It reached a high of $34 million in fiscal 2003, when the agency reported 837 employees. Over 50% of the agency’s budget goes to payroll.

The SEC receives additional funds during an election year. Its budget for this fiscal year is $54.8 million, which includes $22 million for the Nov. 2 general election. The SEC’s work force grew to 994 employees this year.

In addition to these employees, the SEC needs more than 64,000 volunteers to conduct the election process throughout the island. These volunteers (known in Spanish as funcionarios de colegio) look after their party’s interests on Election Day and handle the voting and ballot-counting processes at every polling unit.

The challenge of party financing

Island elections could become even more expensive with the emergence of new political parties such as Puertorriqueños por Puerto Rico Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans), Movimiento Independiente de la Region Este (Independent Movement of the East), and Alternativa Ciudadana (Civic Alternative).

This year, a federal court said a new party can be registered at the SEC without having to submit notarized endorsements, overruling an SEC regulation. On average, the SEC receives up to a dozen requests to register a party every couple of months.

"The current process allows the participation of new parties," said NPP’s Rivera Schatz, noting the registration of Partido del Pueblo in 1968 and Renovacion Puertorriqueña in 1984.

Gracia noted that nearly a dozen candidates are running as independents or under a municipal party this year. "[These candidates] have been integrated into the SEC process, and the SEC has responded to their requests for assistance and support in the electoral process," he said.

However, they don’t receive the same level of financial assistance as the three parties. "Those requests [for assistance] can’t be addressed by allocating the same resources as a major party gets," said Gracia.

According to Law 115 of 2003, regarding the financing of political campaigns, each of the three parties receives $300,000 for its operations during a nonelection year. During an election year, each party receives an additional $3 million for its gubernatorial candidate’s campaign. In addition, the government provides up to $4 million in matching funds for each party’s advertising campaign.

In one election year, taxpayers could spend up to $21.9 million on each of the three parties’ operations and advertising campaigns. This amount is separate from the SEC’s budget, the special allocation for the general election, and any other allocations for special electoral events such as referendums, plebiscites, and primaries.

"Law 115 was the worst piece of legislation the PDP approved last year. Conferring such an amount of money [$7 million] per party is unnecessary; that law needs to be amended as soon as a new administration takes office," said the NPP’s Rivera Schatz.

The PDP’s Cruz agrees the law needs serious evaluation. "Puerto Rico must analyze its electoral process and decide whether to continue with the present law to finance political campaigns, which confers several millions on the parties, or to think of a new formula to support the parties," he said.

"The truth is the parties won’t be able to raise $4 million to get another $4 million from the government. We should eliminate the hybrid model [using public and private funds] and move toward a public financing method, but considerably reducing the amount of money allocated to run a campaign," added Cruz.

"The hybrid model encourages political investors instead of discouraging them," said PIP’s Dalmau, who said eliminating private donations to political campaigns would help to reduce corruption. "It is absurd to confer $7 million on a party to run a political campaign. The PIP has demonstrated $3 million is enough."

Puerto Rico can export its expertise in electoral processes

The State Elections Commission (SEC) can export its expertise in electoral processes, especially to Latin American countries, thereby contributing to the strengthening of new democracies, said former SEC president, Juan R. Melecio.

Melecio believes the local SEC can help others because of the transparency in local elections and the controls that exist to run them. For example, procedures exist to ensure voters vote where they are supposed to, that only active voters are able to participate, and that ballots are counted properly.

Melecio’s master’s degree in international commerce is no doubt related to his interest in sharing Puerto Rico’s knowledge of elections. A year after he took the helm at the SEC in 1991, he established close relationships with electoral organizations in nearby countries and international organizations to improve not only Puerto Rico’s electoral process, but those abroad as well.

"We wanted other countries to know about the Puerto Rican electoral process and we became members of some prestigious organizations such as the International Organization for Electoral Systems, based in Washington, D.C. I also attended an elections-related event in Maine, where our relationship of cooperation with the Dominican Republic began," recalled Melecio.

By exporting its knowledge to incipient democracies, Puerto Rico could benefit as well. The federal government allocates funding to jurisdictions that help other countries improve their elections. "Our system is expensive. The SEC must identify ways to cover its operations," said Melecio.

It took work to get the SEC to where it is today. "As part of our plan [to export our expertise], we decided to have our SEC personnel obtain certification," said Melecio. He also spoke of the need to boost employee morale, strengthen SEC’s internal operations, and find adequate workspace.

In order to improve its operations, Melecio clarified the roles of electoral commissioners and the SEC president. "When I arrived at the SEC in October 1991, a referendum was scheduled, and there was a controversy regarding its regulation. I analyzed the controversy and ruled on the matter. Employees were amazed because it was the first time the [SEC] president had made a ruling on a matter," he recalled. The referendum took place successfully.

Melecio also worked to raise the SEC’s credibility among residents, especially after the controversies involving elections in the 1980s, when ballots were lost and there was an alleged miscounting of votes.

"Employees tried not to identify themselves as SEC employees because the electoral process had been discredited. We cleaned up our reputation and promoted a sense of belonging among our employees. We have defined the SEC’s vision and values, and employees can contribute to the decision-making process," he added.

Melecio also saw the need to have more-centralized offices to better control elections. "Our installations were highly inadequate for the job we had to do. Our headquarters were in Puerta de Tierra [on Covadonga Street], but our divisions were spread throughout San Juan. We had offices where El Mundo newspaper used to be at La Ceramica and we had to lease the Roberto Clemente coliseum to hold elections," recalled Melecio.

As a result, the SEC requested the construction of a new building from the central government. In 1992, Melecio began searching for an adequate facility. A year later, he approached the newly elected governor, Pedro Rossello, who made the matter a priority. "We found a lot next to the AcuaExpreso and one in Tres Monjitas. The agency’s operations headquarters were inaugurated in 1998, and the main office building in 2000," he said.

The agency uses the operations headquarters for storage, preparing materials for elections, counting ballots, and receiving candidates’ endorsements. The 10-story building next to the Puerto Rico Coliseum houses the president and electoral commissioners’ offices, hearing rooms, and information systems, among other things. Acquisition of computers, new equipment, and fax machines also helped SEC operations tremendously, especially during elections.

When asked about the future, Melecio believes once the status issue is resolved, Puerto Rico will probably adopt a two-party system, even though new parties have been flourishing recently.

In the meantime, he said the SEC needs additional resources to educate people on the electoral process and the status issue and to promote awareness of the importance of voting in elections.

Local government spends $12 million to rally stateside Puerto Ricans to register to vote in federal elections

In the past three years, the local government has spent $12 million to register 330,000 stateside Puerto Ricans to vote on the U.S. mainland. This is three times what the local State Elections Commission (SEC) received to register Puerto Rico residents for the local elections. Gov. Sila M. Calderon decided to develop the voter-registration campaign in 2001 to empower mainland Puerto Ricans.

"Approximately 1.7 million of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland are eligible to vote, but only 50% were registered [before we started the campaign]," said Mari Carmen Aponte, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). "Only 36% to 40% of stateside Puerto Ricans vote. We wanted to register as many people as possible and persuade registered voters to vote as well." The PRFAA advocates for Puerto Ricans and Hispanics on issues such as economic development, welfare, and education.

As a starting point, explained Aponte, the PRFAA developed studies to learn why stateside Puerto Ricans are less active in elections than when they lived in Puerto Rico. The PRFAA also conducted research on Puerto Ricans’ way of life in the States to better use the allocated funds.

Sergio Bendixen, owner of the Miami-based consulting firm Bendixen & Associates, assisted the PRFAA in its research. The PRFAA also worked closely with the U.S. Census Bureau, a number of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and the state election boards.

According to the PRFAA, many Puerto Ricans don’t vote in the federal elections because they don’t understand how the Electoral College really works. At the federal level, voters don’t vote directly for the president but rather for presidential delegates, who then elect the president, said Aponte.

In addition, elections take place every year in the States because there are municipal, county, and judicial elections and referenda on proposals.

Getting the word out

The campaign kicked off in 2002 in New York City, and seven other cities, including Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Orlando Florida. The PRFAA then expanded the campaign last year to reach 31 markets in 13 states.

"We established partnerships with Hispanic and Puerto Rican organizations...such as the Hispanic Federation in New York, the Fundacion Boricua in Florida, Casa Don Pedro in New Jersey, and the Hispanic Alliance in Boston," said Aponte.

The PRFAA’s campaign included special placements in targeted media. PRFAA partners also developed neighborhood campaigns. "If a Puerto Rican cultural activity was planned for a certain community, our partners attended and registered Puerto Ricans there," explained Aponte.

The PRFAA is now running a nonpartisan advertising campaign to increase the number of Puerto Rican voters this Nov. 2.

The PRFAA gathered the registration forms, keeping a confidential database of the 330,000 Puerto Ricans who registered in the campaign. Aponte said the agency shared the information only with the election boards in the states where the voters live. These boards also developed quality-control measures to ensure the validity of the new registrations.

Aponte said the PRFAA’s efforts are already reaping results. This year, 70% of registered Puerto Rican voters will vote for president on the U.S. mainland for the first time, Aponte added. This could prove key in such cities as Orlando where the Puerto Rican community has grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years.

What’s more, the number of elected Puerto Rican officials (excluding those in Congress) in the States rose from 100 in 2002 to 124 this year.

"Puerto Ricans could be a real factor in the elections, and we wanted them to know that. That’s real empowerment," said Aponte. "It is important for leaders to know that the Puerto Rican community has specific needs that must be served. If more Puerto Ricans vote, we will see a new generation of Puerto Rican leaders on the U.S. mainland. That’s what we’re looking for."

Voters Registered with the State Elections Commission by Age & Gender*

Age: Male / Female / Total for Age Group

18-19: 48,477 / 50,854 / 99,331

20-24: 123,662 / 130,940 / 254,602

25-29: 117,130 / 126,015 / 243,145

30-34: 109,456 / 117,190 / 226,646

35-39: 105,803 / 115,923 / 221,726

40-44: 103,525 / 117,234 / 220,759

45-49: 96,849 / 113,006 / 209,855

50-54: 90,088 / 106,685 / 196,773

55-59: 88,335 / 105,132 / 193,467

60-64: 74,036 / 87,061 / 161,097

65-69: 61,681 / 72,582 / 134,263

70-74: 46,846 / 56,262 / 103,108

75-79: 34,299 / 43,317 / 77,616

80-84: 23,537 / 29,889 / 53,426

85-89: 11,967 / 15,154 / 27,121

90-94: 5,427 / 6,986 / 12,413

95 & older: 1,944 / 2,697 / 4,641

Unspecified**: 51 / 91 / 142

Total: 1,143,113 / 1,297,018 / 2,440,131

*Per the Electoral Law, Sept. 13, 2004 was the deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 2 general election.

**These records aren’t included in the SEC report because of unclear information.

Source: State Elections Commission

Registered Voter Turnout During General Elections


1980: 78.2%

1984: 88.9%

1988: 84.5%

1992: 84.8%

1996: 82.8%

2000: 82.3%

Source: State Elections Commission

Number of Registered Voters in Electoral Events Since 1980

Year: Electoral event / Registered voters

1980: General election / 2,071,777*

1984: General election / 1,959,877

1988: General election / 2,144,583

1991: Referendum on constitutional amendments / 2,052,690

1992: General election / 2,242,381

1993: Plebiscite / 2,312,912

1994: Referendum on constitutional amendments / 2,126,248

1996: General election / 2,380,676

1998: Status plebiscite / 2,197,824

2000: General election / 2,447,032

* The figure includes 236,617 inactive voters, who didn’t vote in the 1976 general election but remained registered.

Source: State Elections Commission

What’s in a Ballot Briefcase?

A total of 7,175 polling units will each receive a numbered briefcase with all of the materials necessary for the election, including:

  • A form to report the state ballot results
  • A form to report the legislative ballot results
  • A form to report the municipal ballot results
  • Blank paper for notes and math
  • A form to report incidents at the polling unit
  • A form to report incidents during the counting of the ballots
  • Six numbered envelopes
  • An attendance sheet
  • A magnifier
  • Badges or identification cards for election workers
  • State ballots
  • Municipal ballots
  • Legislative ballots
  • Three voting lists, plus one Easy Access voting list, if applicable
  • An Easy Access voters list with voters' pictures for audit purposes, if applicable
  • A voters list with voters’ pictures for audit purposes
  • A procedure manual
  • A copy of the regulations for the 2004 general election
  • A lamp
  • A pencil sharpener
  • 10 envelopes for rejected votes
  • A "Lane Closed" sign
  • Indelible ink to mark the voter's finger and avoid double voting
  • A red pen
  • A black pen
  • Masking tape
  • Plastic seals

*Every polling unit will receive 390 of each of the three ballots (state, legislative, and municipal). If there are more registered voters at a particular unit, the additional ballots needed will be included in the briefcase with the proper annotation. Electoral workers must count the ballots before the opening of the polling units at 8 a.m.

Source: State Elections Commission

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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