Claims ‘uncertainty and confusion’ over SEC’s suspension of primaries led to ‘thousands of voters’ leaving open polling places without casting ballots
SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Supreme Court took up Tuesday a lawsuit filed by Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced against the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission (SEC) and political party electoral commissioners, in which she not only petitions the court to order the resumption of voting at polling stations that never received ballots in Sunday's interrupted primary elections, but also asks for renewed voting at polling places that opened late due to delayed deliveries of election material.
The governor, who is vying to be the New Progressive Party (NPP) standard-bearer in the Nov. 3 general elections, is also asking the court to put a halt to "malicious leaks of electoral results with the obvious purpose of unduly influencing electors who still have not exercised their right to vote. "
Puerto Rico Supreme Court Associate Judge Angel Colón Pérez certified the governor’s lawsuit, which had originally been filed by attorney Edgar R. Vega Pabón at San Juan Superior Court. He summoned the parties to present their arguments by 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Moreover, to ensure the carrying out of court rulings in the case, the judge ordered the immediate seizure of all electoral briefcases in the possession of the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission (SEC) that contain ballots that were cast during the primary elections on Sunday.
In her lawsuit, Vázquez alleges that the right to vote of thousands of Puerto Ricans was “flagrantly violated” during Sunday's primary elections when SEC President Juan Ernesto Dávila, NPP Electoral Commissioner María Santiago Rodríguez and PDP Electoral Commissioner Lind O. Merle Feliciano changed “the rules of the game” by allowing voting to be postponed for hours after the scheduled 8:00 am start of the process due to delayed delivery of ballots and other electoral materials.
The governor claims that this violates Joint Resolution 37, which Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly approved on June 4 to postpone the NPP and PDP primaries from the originally scheduled date of June 4, 2020 to Aug. 9, due to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. She notes that the resolution specifically sets primary voting hours between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., adding that the resolution states that violations or lack of compliance with its provisions constitutes a felony.
Vázquez states in the lawsuit that “dozens of electoral precincts” could not begin the voting process until well after 8:00 a.m. given the tardy arrival of the ballots.
Even though the SEC and party electoral commissioners assured that the polling stations that opened late would be guaranteed the required eight hours of voting, the governor alleges that the announcement by the SEC at about 2:00 p.m. on Sunday that polling stations that had not received ballots by then would be closed and voting rescheduled there for next Sunday, Aug. 16 led to “uncertainty and confusion” among voters who were waiting in line at polling stations where voting had started, prompting “ many of them ”to leave.
“Thousands of electors and polling officials were affected as they had to wait for long hours standing and under inclement weather for the arrival of [electoral] material and for the voting to begin,” the governor says in her lawsuit, noting that electors had "established their personal plans" in conformity with the 8:00 am-to-4: 00 pm voting schedule.
“In the face of the prevailing uncertainty, thousands of electors left without being able to exercise their right to vote even though they had come to vote on time,” the governor's lawsuit states, noting that in a “significant number” of polling stations in which ballots arrived late "many electors had already left."
“On the other hand, those who were to vote in precincts in which materials never arrived, were in the same way deprived of their right to vote at the date and hour that the law established,” Vázquez alleges in the lawsuit, pointing out that voting could not be carried out at 66 percent of the precincts in which NPP primary elections were scheduled, given the failure by the SEC to deliver ballots there.
According to data submitted by Dávila during Puerto Rico Supreme Court hearing in which arguments from the parties were heard, voting was not carried out at 63 precincts in which NPP primaries were being held, while the same occurred at 72 precincts in which the PDP primaries were being held. The island has a total of 110 electoral precincts, which means that electors in about two-thirds of local electoral precincts were not able to cast their ballots on Sunday.
If the court rules in favor of Gov. Vázquez ’petition to redo voting in polling stations that opened late, only a fraction of the votes cast on Sunday would be considered valid, NPP sources reportedly said on Tuesday. Dávila reportedly told a local news outlet on Tuesday that such an outcome would force the SEC to request $ 9 million in funding and several more weeks to prepare such voting.
Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) announced on Tuesday that it approved a request by the commonwealth Office of Management & Budget (OMB) Secretary Iris Santos Díaz to reassign $ 1.28 million in unallocated capital expenditures ”under the custody of OMB to cover service and transportation costs for the resumption of the primaries next Sunday.
'Malicious leaking' of results
The governor also alleged in her lawsuit that as a gubernatorial candidate, her rights and those of people who meant to vote for her were violated by the “malicious leaking of selective electoral results” by her opponent, former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who she accuses of using the leaks to "unduly influence the electorate that still has not been able to cast a vote."
Pierluisi, who has filed his own court challenge against the SEC decision, which the island's top court has also taken up, argues that the SEC is obligated by electoral law to establish a system to publicly disclose precinct election results as they are submitted , and report a partial result by 10 pm on election night.
However, Vázquez argues in her lawsuit that this interpretation of the 2020 Electoral Code is “absurd” and “irrelevant,” adding that its provisions concerning disclosure of electoral results only apply when the primary election has concluded, which is not the case . She said that disclosing election results at this stage "cannot pursue any other purpose than to contaminate the electorate that has not voted."
A Spanish-language daily on Tuesday leaked presumptive results from a number of polling station results its reporters gained access to, which presumably indicate that Pierluisi and PDP primary gubernatorial candidate and Isabela mayor Charlie Delgado Altieri are ahead in the NPP and PDP primary vote, respectively.
PPD primary gubernatorial candidate Eduardo Bhatia, whose lawsuit seeking that the primary voting be resumed immediately and that SEC disclose partial voting results has also been taking up by the high court, on Tuesday filed a court motion in aid of jurisdiction to order the SEC to issue a certification under oath of when it will be prepared to resume the primary voting.
While Bhatia expressed similar concerns over the leaking of voting results, he favors the SEC issuing partial results.