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Puerto Rico’s chaotic and unfinished concern about voter repression

Puerto Ricans like Carmen Damaris Quiñones Torres still don’t know who their candidates for governor are, two days after the island held a chaotic primary election designed to determine who will vote in November.

Quiñones Torres, who lives in the town of Trujillo Alto, was preparing to vote in Puerto Rico’s primary on Sunday when she found out that her polling station was closed because it never received ballots. Other polling stations received ballots hours after the voting began or the pre-election period ended.

These scenes were repeated in hundreds of polling stations across the island.

Quiñones Torres, with the help of the ACLU chapter of Puerto Rico, is suing the president of the island̵

7;s electoral commission and party commissioners overseeing the primaries, claiming their decision to close the elections early while the primaries were taking place on Sunday is illegal and unconstitutional.

The president of the electoral commission, Juan Ernesto Dávila, as well as the party commissioners María Santiago Rodríguez and Lind Merle Feliciano and other officials are facing a backlash over early election closings. Other critics have also beaten her for making polling stations that eventually received ballots work longer, arguing that some voters have already left because of the delays.

Dávila told Telemundo Puerto Rico on Tuesday evening that his agency was working to reopen polling stations that did not receive ballots for a makeup primary on August 16. It is unclear what will happen to the polling stations that are running out of ballots.

Mayte Bayolo-Alonso, an ACLU attorney working on the case, told NBC News that there is no “statutorily required law, order, or judgment” issued to members of the electoral commission who “are unelected officials who are part of an executive agency are “allowed to suspend or postpone an elementary school.

“Expand it, you can do it because you are not restricting the right to vote, you are offering more. But you cannot restrict the date or time of an ongoing elementary school,” she said. “Even in the US, the law makes it clear that you cannot vote in the middle of the election process.”

An official turns two voters away at a polling center Aug. 9, 2020, missing ballots in Carolina, Puerto Rico.Danica Coto / AP

“If you do that, you are causing irreparable damage,” said Bayolo-Alonso. “We are now trying to mitigate this damage and ensure that those who have been left out can vote.”

The lousy primary process has also sparked a number of lawsuits from candidates for primary votes – including one by Governor Wanda Vázquez, who was not elected governor after taking office last year. Ricardo Rosselló resigned amid mass protests sparked by a political scandal. Their main opponent, Pedro Pierluisi, who, like Vázquez, comes from the pro-state New Progressive Party, is suing, as are opposition party candidates Eduardo Bhatia and Carlos Delgado.

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Carlos Méndez, President of the island’s House of Representatives, and other officials are calling on the Commission to publish the results of the roughly 60 out of 110 districts that have voted in order to be transparent. Others are calling on the commission to delay the publication of the results, arguing that this could affect how people vote in the makeup elections.

On Wednesday morning, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued an order to paralyze “the counting, scrutiny and disclosure of votes cast in the primaries last Sunday” until the case is resolved.

The ballot papers of those who voted are in “locked cages” in a stadium that serves as the operations center of the election commission. According to Dávila, they are guarded by police officers and representatives of candidates running for office.

Usually suppress high voter turnout?

Bayolo-Alonso said she saw many red flags ahead of the primaries after the Puerto Rican government passed a new electoral code in June amid the coronavirus pandemic – a change in electoral rules about 130 days before the November 3 general election.

This meant that Puerto Rican voters – known for often having a turnout of 70 percent or more – had limited time to learn what counts as a valid vote and that the authorities overseeing the electoral process are working against the clock had to adhere to the new rules.

“Even when the new electoral code was passed, the electoral commission was doomed to fail,” Bayolo-Alonso said in Spanish. The new code stipulates that ballot papers must be printed 75 days before an election. However, this new rule was enacted on June 20, two weeks before the Sunday primary. “There have been violations since it was approved,” she said.

Given coronavirus concerns, Puerto Ricans living on the island will only be able to attend a primary election if they vote in person under the new electoral law. “And that option was limited by a bad process,” said Bayolo-Alonso.

Additionally, the coronavirus lockdown in Puerto Rico banned new voters from registering for 95 days. New voters in Puerto Rico can only register in person. “It’s also a kind of voter suppression,” said Bayolo-Alonso.

It is now up to the Puerto Rican Supreme Court to establish a legal framework to ensure the electoral process does not disintegrate during the November general election.

The Puerto Rican Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case sometime Wednesday night.

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