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The Boston Globe

Puerto Rico Voters Have Spoken


16 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Like many other Americans on election day, the people of Puerto Rico went to the polls to elect a new governor, which they have been doing as residents of the island commonwealth for the past 50 years. This year, however, there was an unfortunate twist.

The day after the election, the state elections commission on a preliminary basis certified Anibal Vila, the candidate representing Puerto Rico's Popular Democratic Party, as the next governor. Acevedo Vila maintained his lead in a subsequent recount. Unwilling to concede, his challenger took the case to the federal courts. Since then, Puerto Rico has experienced a gradual unraveling of its electoral process and an undoing of the will of its people and the opinion of its courts.

Fortunately, last night the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Massachusetts did the right thing: It returned the case to Puerto Rico's Supreme Court. On Monday, while hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the courthouse, the three-judge panel heard arguments on whether Puerto Rico's Supreme Court or a US district judge in San Juan should have jurisdiction over the disputed ballots.

Federal courts have no business in this case. If this challenge had been successful, it would have increased the danger of all US elections being taken away from the voters and given to the courts to decide. This is a slippery slope for the United States.

At issue is what is called "mixed ballots." Similar to "split tickets," mixed ballots include votes for one political party but also votes for one or more candidates from a different party. In Puerto Rico, the law requires each political party to receive at least 7 percent of votes cast to maintain its electoral franchise.

Ballots serve to gather votes for both political parties and their candidates. "Mixed ballots" are a common option for voters who want to support their political party but wish to favor a candidate from another party. These ballots are specifically permitted under Puerto Rico law and have been counted in other elections such as in 2000 and the 1996 election of former Governor Pedro Rossello - who coincidentally is the candidate now challenging their validity.

Pedro Rossello, an advocate of statehood representing Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party, is no stranger to controversy. During his eight years as governor, his administration was riddled with corruption. More than 40 of his Cabinet members, high-ranking officials, and party operatives, including a former secretary of education, two former deputy chiefs of staff, campaign manager, and a personal secretary, are either in prison, have pleaded guilty, or have been indicted and are awaiting trial.

Rossello, unwilling to concede to Acevedo Vila, filed suit in federal court rather than the Puerto Rico Court of First Instance as provided under Puerto Rico law, asking that the commission be ordered to conduct a recount in conjunction with the canvassing. After the canvassing demonstrated that Acevedo Vila remained ahead, Rossello's party changed its suit to instead request that up to 28,000 mixed-ballot votes be thrown out despite the fact that Puerto Rico's Supreme Court ruled that these votes are valid. Rossello's party's own manual, distributed to poll-watchers, recognizes mixed ballots as legitimate votes.

Despite frivolous attempts to discredit mixed ballots and disenfranchise thousands of voters, the law in Puerto Rico is crystal clear. In fact, thousands of these ballots were adjudicated on election night based on the unanimous approval by three-person teams assembled at the more than 7,000 polling places with representatives from each of Puerto Rico's political parties. These unanimous validations of mixed ballots occurred through out Election Day and the week following. It wasn't until after Rossello's party filed suit contesting these ballots 10 days after the election that these ballots were questioned.

This case has implications for all of us. It was a flagrant example of a defeated candidate trying to bypass state law and the will of the people.

The people of Puerto Rico have spoken. The courts of Puerto Rico should have the primary responsibility for validating those voters. The First Circuit Court in Boston should be applauded for giving Puerto Rico's election back to the people of Puerto Rico.

Felix D. Arroyo is a Boston city councilor at large.

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