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Making It Better


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

Electronic banking, cellular communications, wireless Internet access, satellite television, digital technology. That’s Puerto Rico. Yet, come Election Day next Tuesday, Nov. 2, more than two million voters will choose their local government officials by making pencil marks on paper ballots. How come?

Despite the enormous amount of taxpayer dollars that go to support one of the most respected and trustworthy electoral systems in the Western Hemisphere, Puerto Rico’s still has a way to g23 o.

During a nonelection year, the State Elections Commission’s (SEC) budget may hover around $34 million. That was the amount it received in fiscal 2003, when no electoral events took place. In an election year, the SEC receives an additional legislative appropriation to carry out the election. This fiscal year (ends June 30, 2005), for example, a $22 million special legislative appropriation was added to the agency’s regular $32.8 million budget, for a total $54.8 million.

Still, on Election Day, votes will be counted manually, one by one, by a veritable army of 64,000 volunteers.

How come some of that money hasn’t been invested in technology, already available and tested in places such as the U.S. mainland, that enables actual electronic voting and automated ballot counting?

Don’t get us wrong. We are proud of the SEC’s track record as the guardian of a safe, trustworthy electoral system that everyone in Puerto Rico respects despite the fever pitch that characterizes partisan politics on the island. In addition, as our front-page story reveals, the SEC has been incorporating technology in several areas of its operations and, slowly but surely, has been improving the system.

But the skepticism some of the parties’ electoral commissioners expressed to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS–about the risk more-advanced voting and/or counting technology could represent in terms of the trustworthiness of the whole process–seemed like deja vu. It reminded us of the debate we waged for years in Puerto Rico about the open vs. closed voting-units system.

Younger CB readers may not remember, but in the old days, everyone assigned to a particular voting unit had to enter the classroom at the same time; the door would be shut at, say, 2 p.m., and no one could exit until the whole crowd inside had finished voting. The idea was to safeguard against double voting.

For years, the debate raged between those who proposed an easier, more flexible schedule such as we have now, where you can show up to vote anytime between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and those who defended tooth and nail the traditional, closed voting-unit system based on the argument that if people were allowed to move freely in and out of the voting unit, we would have massive electoral fraud. Well, in time, the open system was adopted, and today nobody thinks twice about it, as ways were found to avoid any possibility of anybody voting twice.

Puerto Rico’s voting and counting system needs a serious technological update. A system that depends so much on humans is so much more prone to human error.

As former SEC President Juan Melecio told us, "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."

We agree.

A hybrid system?

It is rumored that stateside firm Bearing Point has recommended to the Puerto Rico Treasury Department (Hacienda) a hybrid system where a VAT would be imposed on importers or distributors and a sales tax on consumers. Teresita Fuentes, a tax principal at Ernst & Young and a former deputy secretary of Hacienda, said such a system would pose serious administration challenges.

"This type of tax system doesn’t consider issues such as the potential for double taxation, the complexities of administering two different systems, and the difficulties of transitioning from one system to two different systems applied at different levels," said Fuentes. "It is possibly the worst choice in terms of administration."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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