|December 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
"A Flawed Voting System: Should it Change?"
At weeks end, Puerto Rico is faced with a political crisis of its own making. One month after its general election, island residents still do not know who will be their next Governor. The election for that office was so close that a recount of votes cast on November 2nd is underway. It is questionable if the victor will be determined by January 2, 2005, the date on which a certified winner should take office. Meanwhile, the island has turned itself into a circus of street demonstrations and outrageous charges by partisans of all parties.
The recount is proceeding at a snails pace with numerous interruptions caused by conflicting orders from the Puerto Rico Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court that ultimately assumed jurisdiction in the case. A highly politicized and incompetent State Elections Commission (CEE) has accomplished less than 6% of the total recount after 3&1/2 weeks of trying, caused by indecision by its President, Aurelio Gracia, and wrangling among representatives of the three political parties whose workers actually count the votes. Avaricious politicians are attempting to inflame island residents, hiding naked ambition behind the veil of "stolen democracy."
The factual trail, by this time, is well known. On November 2nd, Puerto Rican voters expressed obvious dissatisfaction with the four-year administration of the commonwealth-favoring Popular Democratic Party (PDP) by electing a majority of Senators, Representatives and Mayors of the rival statehood-favoring New Progressive Party (NPP). The minority Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) failed to win the minimum 3% of votes to maintain its status as an official party.
In spite of this clear voter trend favoring the NPP, its candidate for Governor, Pedro Rosselló, was reported trailing the PDP candidate, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, by a mere 3,880 votes out of 1,970,759 votes cast, in spite of the fact that he had been comfortably ahead in public opinion polls taken on the day before the election. Everyone was surprised by this turn of events. The NPP was suspicious. It called for a vote-by-vote recount of all ballots cast. Acevedo Vilás 0.2% advantage fell below the 0.5% margin of victory required to endorse him as the clear-cut victor, thereby legally requiring a recount of the votes.
Within hours after the voting, CEE President Aurelio Gracia declared Acevedo Vilá as the "provisional" winner, who immediately formed a "transition team." Shortly thereafter, Gracia announced that the recount would begin, but not a review of all votes cast, but rather an administrative review called a "general recount," to ascertain the reporting accuracy of vote tallies as they moved on Election Night from the polling places, to the precincts and finally to the CEE headquarters where the official count was announced.
Also revealed was the existence of some 30,000 votes that were either contested or not counted, consisting of absentee ballots and others cast in hospitals and prisons. Also questioned was the presence of ballots that were improperly marked, causing the NPP to lodge a complaint in the U.S. Federal Court in San Juan that they be declared invalid. At the same time PIP and PDP activists petitioned the local courts to rule them valid. Shortly thereafter, the Puerto Rico high court so ruled but its order was countermanded by Federal Court Judge Daniel Dominguez, who is still hearing evidence and is not expected to rule until late next week at the earliest.
The ballots in question are those on which only two offices are in play but the voter has made three marks -- one for the party and one each for candidates of a competing party. No one will know how many of these "mixed votes" actually exist until the recount is done but it is assumed that most all relate to PIP voters who wished to assist their partys validation process but vote for both PDP candidates, in order to stop the statehood ambitions of the NPP candidate, Pedro Rosselló.
These votes, popularly known as pivasos, are at the root of the legal dispute. If they are ruled as invalid, Pedro Rosselló will surely win the election. If some or all are permitted to be counted, it will help Acevedo Vilá but will not assure him of victory. Judge Dominguez has ruled that the CEE, in addition to the "general recount," must begin to count each vote individually. That recount could swing the margin of victory one way or the other, regardless of the impact on the election of the "mixed votes." The "mixed votes," he ordered, must be set aside and not credited to any candidate until he has had a chance to rule on their admissibility.
All of this confusion calls into question the validity of the voting process in Puerto Rico and suggests that reforms are in order for future voting, no matter how the 2004 election is finally decided.
On November 2nd, a Puerto Rican voter entering his/her polling place was presented with three ballots, one offering many candidates for municipal offices, another for many legislative candidates and a third, called a "state ballot," offering only those running for the offices of Governor and Resident Commissioner. On each of these ballots, the voter could have voted in one of three ways.
The first way is the straight party vote, or voto íntegro, by which he simply places one mark under the symbol of his party preference. By so doing, all candidates of that party receive his vote for every office on the ballot. The second voting option is the "mixed vote," or voto mixto, on which the voter places a mark under a party logo but also places a mark by the name of one or several candidates of competing parties. The third option is to vote for specific candidates regardless of their party affiliation. In this method, no mark is made under the logo of any political party.
The manner by which Puerto Ricans vote for their officials is a throw-back to the days when many islanders were illiterate and mass communications except radio - failed to reach the remote areas. Then, paper ballots marked by pencil, colors and symbols to distinguish political parties and candidate pictures on ballots insured that most could easily identify the individuals of their choice. Then the system enhanced the democratic process and facilitated the concept of "one man, one vote." Today it more reminds one of a voting process in Paraguay or Bangladesh than in a modern, well-educated society.
Equally troubling is the possibility for mischief that exists in the counting process, wherein interested parties can tamper with votes, count them erroneously or "lose" them. The some 2 million votes cast on November 2nd in Puerto Rico will have been handled twice by some 4 million hands, 20 million fingers and reviewed by many thousands of eyes before finally being credited to a candidate.
That is part of the problem that has the island tied into knots today.
This week Herald readers can register an opinion as to whether or not they would wish to see a reform in the manner by which candidates are elected every four years in Puerto Rico