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The Orlando Sentinel

Election Is Huge Draw On Island

by Iván Román

November 6, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Diego Morales stood in the pouring rain outside a television studio Wednesday to cheer his gubernatorial candidate debating inside. The last thing on his mind was that he was getting drenched.

"Not be here? Not vote? Are you crazy?" said Morales, 37, a clothing retailer from the San Juan suburb of Carolina, as he waved a flag for pro-statehood New Progressive Party candidate Carlos Pesquera.

When it comes to voter participation, Puerto Rico has the United States beat hands down. And its voter turnout surpasses those of Brazil, Canada, Germany, Israel, Croatia, Japan and Mexico.

On this Caribbean island of about 4 million people, virtually everyone 18 and older is registered to vote.

And they do.

"Our participation is among the highest in the world. And in almost all countries that are higher, voting is compulsory," said Fernando Bayron Toro, a lawyer and political sciences professor who studies voting trends. "Politics here is like a national sport."

More than 9 out of every 10 Puerto Ricans eligible to vote are registered -- almost 2.5 million people -- compared with about 74 percent in the states. The average turnout in gubernatorial elections since 1972 was 85 percent, compared with 49 percent in the 1996 U.S. presidential election.

Observers of Latin American and Caribbean elections say Puerto Ricans seem to have a penchant for contentious politics, as a form of civic sharing and public expression. The island tops the average high turnout of 65 percent to 70 percent in Latin American countries where the vote is voluntary.

With Tuesday`s gubernatorial race too close to call, another parade to the polls is expected.

Why does nearly everyone vote? Aside from plebiscites and referendums, voters come out just once every four years to choose all 1,020 elected officials -- one governor, one resident commissioner, 27 senators, 51 representatives, 78 mayors and 862 municipal assembly people.

Bayron Toro thinks there`s a bigger reason: the island`s political status, which he calls the driving force behind local politics. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. commonwealth, with local autonomy that statehooders and pro-independence activists consider colonial, and that even commonwealth supporters want to improve.

"Since the political-status question hasn`t been resolved, every time a Puerto Rican has a chance to express himself or herself about it, they will," he said. "That`s something we have here that they don`t have in other places."

"I love the electoral process in Puerto Rico because it`s so much more participatory than here in the United States," said Patricio Gajardo, director of Latin America and the Caribbean for the International Foundation for Election Systems, who has observed 30 elections.

Puerto Rican elections also have a festive air and a spontaneity that is uncommon in many countries.

No carefully controlled rallies with subdued cheering here. Candidates` entourages sing and dance through neighborhoods. Thousands pile into car caravans causing horrendous traffic jams.

From their windows Friday, office workers in Old San Juan moved their hips to a bouncy "Positive Force" jingle blaring over huge speakers. They cheered opposition Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Sila Maria Calderon and the hundreds who marched with her for miles under hot sun to a closing campaign rally. This year, some women have an extra reason to go to the polls because Calderon is vying to become the island`s first female governor.

"I am proud to be a woman, and we have to give people this positive force," said nurse Juana de la Cruz, 44, as she marched along. "This is the power of the people."

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