|January 7, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Party Politics in Puerto Rico: Does it serve the Voters Well?
Just when you thought that the election carnival in Puerto Rico was over and the winning vote-getters might begin the process of governing, on Wednesday a rejected rider for the islands political merry-go-round said that he had somehow found a ticket to ride after all.
Pedro Rosselló, the current President of the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the gubernatorial candidate rejected by the voters for a trip to the Fortalezas fun house (albeit by a tiny margin trailing his winning rival Aníbal Acevedo Vilá), at a press conference announced that he would now be taking a whirl on the Senates carousel, using reservations recently turned back by an elected Senate member from his own party. He also indicated that he would shortly be inspecting the equipment to decide exactly on which horse he should ride, regardless of existing seating assignments. He hinted that it would be appropriate for a personage of his stature to sit on the brightest, most exquisitely carved and highest flying animal on the attraction.
Metaphors aside, in Puerto Rico it is the three established political parties that shape the political process much more so than do those on the U.S. mainland. Rossellós decision to move to the Senate to replace a departing member is legal and entirely within accepted island tradition. In Puerto Rico it is the party that names replacements for departing office holders of that party, not elected officials and not by a specific Constitutional procedure. In contrast, in most U.S. states, a replacement for a Senate vacancy is named by the affected states Governor, who is an elected official. Then, the newly seated member would need to present himself/herself to the voters at the time of the next general election. In some cases, a special election is held to determine the matter. Ultimately the voters decide.
The specific Rosselló move, however legal, has complicated an already tense situation in a divided government and is more seen as a cynical grab for personal power than a statesmanlike gesture of public service. Newly elected NPP Senators have publicly stated that they were pressured to resign to make way for Rosselló, with offers of high paying jobs or business opportunities. Rosselló, who at first said that it would be inappropriate for him to take a Senate seat under any conditions, has apparently experienced an epiphany in the matter, no doubt to be consistent with the spirituality of the Christmas Season.
The international attention brought to Puerto Ricos electoral system by the recount of votes of the islands November 2nd election, and the subsequent law suits filed by the political parties contesting aspects of the voting, has held the islands electoral system up to scrutiny and subjected it to widespread analysis and criticism.
Curiosity about the suitability of the present system begins with the manner by which the Puerto Rico voter makes his/her choice on Election Day. The voter is presented with three paper ballots, one for local candidates, another for island-wide candidates and a third for the offices of Governor and Resident Commissioner. To mark these ballots, the voter is provided a pencil. Each ballot is subsequently counted, presumably by representatives of each party at each of the thousands of voting places, and then the results passed on to a corresponding precinct headquarters and finally to the State Elections Commission that announces the winner. Individuals appointed by the political parties control the process at every step of the way.
A question to be asked, "Is there any reason why a modern society like Puerto Rico is still wedded to a voting system best suited to an illiterate electorate and a communications deprived society?" Why is a modern voting system available to most American citizens not available to those in Puerto Rico? When we put the question to Herald voters in November in a Hot Button Issue Poll, 73% of respondents said that the system should be reformed. Only 3 of 10 island participants in the poll wanted the system to remain as it is presently. The remaining 70% wanted change.
When asked why Puerto Rico retained such an outmoded system, an anonymous political insider told the Herald that it prevailed because it is one that makes it "easier to cheat." Although there was no proven fraud related to the just-completed election, the recount revealed that thousands of ballots were not originally counted, absentee ballots were late being sent out and all were not adjudicated, suspicion was cast on votes coming from prisoners and patients in hospitals, and then there were the famous pivazos, or ballots on which individuals voted for their party but candidates from a different party.
The pivazos became the cause celebre of the lawsuits and the factor that was ultimately Rossellós undoing. These ballots occurred on the "state ballots," providing the voter choices for two offices, Governor and Resident Commissioner. In three separate columns, the partys logo, its colors and the names and pictures of its candidates for each office were listed. An option provided was for the voter to simply make a mark under the party logo and no other marks. This would mean that each candidate of that party would receive a vote for each office. On numerous pivazos, voters marked the party logo for the PIP but also the names of both candidates of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). The resulting three votes for two offices became stuff of legal argument in both the local and federal courts.
Ultimately the federal court refused to rule in a matter that it considered a local issue. The local court said that the votes should count for the marked candidates since that is the way it had always been done before and that no one had yet complained. The system, it ruled, gave the minority PIP members a chance to express support for their party even though they did not support its candidates. Most mainland observers found such a process quaint but incomprehensible.
It is this state of affairs in which Puerto Rico finds itself for the next four years due to an antiquated electoral system and unchecked power by political parties to replace withdrawn office holders. The question this week for Herald readers is if they think the system needs overhauling and replacement by one that simplifies the choices for voters and focuses more on the election of candidates and less on permanence of political parties.
What should be done?