|December 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Feliz Navidad! Who Gets To Open The Big Present?
With the recount of votes in the 2004 general election nearly completed and the Puerto Rico Elections Commissions (CEE) counters released for Christmas observances, it appears that Popular Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is the winner by a small margin.
According to CEE President Aurelio Gracia, the official certification will be issued next Tuesday or Wednesday. That announcement, however, may not be the end of the story.
The legal landscape in Puerto Rico is full of obstacles and opportunities for Rosselló, from minor corrections to potential U.S. Supreme Court intervention. In an election as close as this one, where even a few votes can change the outcome, minor irregularities or accusations of fraud could make a difference, such as the intriguing rumors that some patients voted while in hospitals and then went to outside polling places to vote again.
However, there seem to actually be three more likely areas that could hold enough contestable votes to sway the election the famous pivazos or mixed-vote ballots, the prisoner votes and the absentee votes.
The pivazo controversy has been the major challenge presented by the NPP since the November 2nd election. Seemingly based on the issue of whether a person can vote for one party and also the candidates of another party, it was taken by the NPP and Pedro Rosselló (whose election race it affected) to Federal District Judge Daniel Rodríguez in San Juan, who bucked it up to a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. However, the appeal was based on a procedural question, not on the voting issue in dispute -- the one-man-one-vote principle. It was an appeal to a ruling by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court that they, not the federal courts, had jurisdiction over the question of validity of the pivazos.
The Appeals Court ruled on December 15 that the local Supreme Court in Puerto Rico had jurisdiction over the Puerto Rico election. Since that court had already declared valid the almost exclusively PDP-favoring pivazos, it was generally believed that this was the determining factor that would give the election to Acevedo Vilá.
Last Tuesday, the NPP took the case back to the full six-judge federal Appeals Court in Boston, but were denied a hearing. The denial was again based on the question of jurisdiction, but the lawyers for Pedro Rosselló addressed the double vote or "overvote" issue in their legal brief, referring to voters who marked their ballots for the PDP candidates for Governor and Resident Commissioner and then also voted for the PIP party. They stated, "It is absolutely clear that the State Elections Commissions Resolution (validating the pivazos) gives a select and special set of voters the opportunity to vote for a party without voting for any of its candidates. No other voter had this power."
It was reported in the Puerto Rican press that the original three-judge panel in Boston acknowledged that the "overvote," or conversely, a "vote dilution" issue could have merit, rather than the jurisdiction issue they were asked to judge. This may indicate that there could be further possibilities for the NPP in the federal courts, maybe the U.S. Supreme Court.
The other possible areas of legal challenge are the prison and absentee votes. It could be argued by the NPP that prejudicial decisions in both cases have been made by election officials.
In the case of the prisoner votes, State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia on Monday ordered that the 3,036 disputed prisoner votes be counted. PDP Elections Commissioner Gerardo Cruz estimates that 60% of those votes are for Acevedo Vilá. The NPP has claimed that many prisoners were coerced into voting for Acevedo Vilá. The PDP attributes the votes to the prisoners reaction to Rossellós campaign comments implying that he might deny the vote to them if elected. For whatever reason, it was known that the great majority of those votes were for the PDP and the NPP feels that Gracias ruling to count them is another sign of his bias toward the PDP.
In the absentee ballot arena, the NPPs complaint is that not enough votes will be counted. It is presumed that absentee ballots favor Rosselló, but they are no longer being accepted by the Administrative Board of Absentee Voters (JAVA). The Board has stated that the deadlines have past for returning ballots from the U.S. mainland (30 days from date of issue, i.e. Nov. 22) and from overseas (45 days from date of issue, i.e. Dec. 7).
The NPP suspects ulterior motives. Some of the absentee voters are local soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only are they deprived of voting for their Commander-in-Chief because of residence in Puerto Rico, but the local processes and the lassitude of Federal officials have allowed some of their votes to be discarded in spite of the statutes of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Vote Act (UOCAVA).
According to a recently published study by APRS (Americans for Puerto Rico Statehood), under the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Elections Commission law and in accordance to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, any individual that was eligible to vote and properly submitted their application before the deadline had to receive their ballot by mail 30 days before the general election. The Federal Court received evidence showing that a military person received his ballots on November 18th, postmarked November 15th, when the SEC affirmed under oath at the Federal Court that all remaining ballots were sent on October 27th 30th.
And the beat goes on. There could be more and more law suits. When and how should it stop? How far should any individual or Party go in contesting an election.
In this extremely close election for governor of Puerto Rico, the question is relevant. This is your chance to decide in this specific election how far the NPP should go. What do you think?