Chaos in Puerto Rico’s local primaries due to missing ballots
In the wake of a Democratic primary for the United States Presidential election in which Joe Biden was declared the winner with 62.4% of the vote, Puerto Rico was forced to partially suspend local primaries, including those for the governor’s race, due to a lack of ballots at voting centers. Including the gubernatorial races, the pro-statehood New Progessive Party and the pro-territorial status Popular Democratic Party are holding fifty primaries for mayoral nominations across the islands. Despite the large number of races, there appears to have been a lack of preparedness on the part of the State Elections Commission, as, according to reports, ballots had only reached about 20% of voting centers by mid-morning, and trucks containing the ballots were still parked at the election commission’s headquarters by afternoon.
Officials’ calls for the president of the elections commission to resign were swift, and backlash and disappointment reverberated from every political party. Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D), who is running against incumbent Governor Wanda Vázquez (NPP, R) to become the nominee for the New Progressive Party, stated, “I’ve never seen on American soil something like what has just been done here in Puerto Rico. It’s an embarrassment to our government and our people”. Vázquez also publicized her disappointment, saying “what happened today by the State Elections Commission is unprecedented and there is no excuse that can support it. This matter must be addressed immediately and the alternatives analyzed so that the constitutional right of all the voters of the precincts… is absolutely guaranteed so that they can exercise their vote in primaries”. Others chimed in, with Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (PDP, D), a former governor who is running to represent Puerto Rico in Congress, stating “this is crass incompetence”, and Marcos Cruz (PDP, D), mayor of Vega Baja claiming “this is indignant, abusive, and an attempt against the democracy of our country”.
Politicians were not the only ones discontented with the lack of ballots, as voters were also disappointed and began to turn back from polling locations. The lack of organization could potentially be a damaging blow to Puerto Rico’s traditionally high voter turnout of nearly 70%. Many voters braved a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, wore face masks, and stood in the heat in order to cast their ballot. However, many, after waiting for the majority of the morning and into the afternoon, left their place in line and returned home upon learning there were no ballots at their polling station and that the primary may be rescheduled. Gireleiz Zambrana, a federal employee, said that nearly half the people waiting with him in line left when they learned that the polling center would not open, and indicated they would not return. He chose to stay, however, stating that he would stay as long as needed because of the importance of his vote. “We need help”, he stated. “Puerto Rico can’t take it anymore”.
New Progressive Party president Thomas Rivera-Schatz (NPP, R) held a joint press conference with the president of the Popular Democratic Party to state that they believe the remaining primaries should be rescheduled to a week later, to August 16. Vázquez also voiced her support for this alternative date. However, others believe that the primaries should all be held at a later date, regardless of whether voting could be completed. The elections commission reaffirmed Schatz’s statement that those primaries that had not received their ballots would be rescheduled at a later time.
These primaries are crucial for Puerto Rico, particularly within the Popular Democratic Party, who, as advocates of remaining a US territory, are often the subject of frustrations from those who believe the trouble Puerto Rico has recently faced economically and due to natural disasters highlight what they view as mistreatment from the federal government in Washington. This is the first time the party will be holding a gubernatorial primary in their 82-year history, pitting three candidates against each other.
Officials appear optimistic that the issues the elections commission faced will be resolved by next Sunday, and that voters will be willing to return to the polls once ballots arrive.