Puerto Rico's Electoral Commission opened an investigation on Monday into allegations of vote tampering and voter fraud by both of the island's main political parties in the island's recent political primaries.
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans went to the ballots on March 18 to decide which candidates of the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) for mayors, senators and representatives would go on to the November elections.
The process was fraught with discrepancies, with the NPP and PDP flinging fraud and vote count accusations at each other. But the most egregious allegations stem from an internal fight within the NPP in Guaynabo --where the popular mayor of the city, Hector O’Neill, backs the candidacy of the incumbent representative Antonio Soto, while the top leadership of the NPP party backs an opponent, Angel Pérez. The race triggered a battle that forced a recount of the primaries ballots for the first time in Puerto Rico’s political history. Recounts were up to now reserved only for the general elections.
The bitter contest and recount has already dredged-up evidence of electoral practices that sparked the Electoral Commission investigation and may lead to a charges of criminal wrongdoing. It laid bare a practice of "vaciado de listas," where people were recorded as having voted that never went to the polls or were deceased.
The recount will likely take about three weeks to complete, if not more, according to the President of Puerto Rico's Electoral Commission, Héctor Conty.
Conty ordered the recount, in light of the mounting accusations from both political parties, and kept the matter out of the courts for the time being. If enough evidence is found of fraud, it could lead to a criminal investigation.
Gov. Luis Fortuño has stated that whoever was involved in the wrongdoings, no matter which party they belong to, will be brought to justice. “If the shoe fits, wear it,” he said.
The scandal has further eroded an already skeptical voting public’s confidence in the island’s political system and both of the major parties have much to lose.
“The political parties themselves [NPP and PDP] have made sure throughout the years that this practice remained hidden,” Antonio Sagardia, ex Minister of Justice under Fortuño, said. “Now they have kicked the anthill and the ants are starting to bite. They can’t go back and put the ants back in.”
“This situation is going into a crescendo. It will not be resolved by a mere chest x-ray. This needs a complete MRI,” Sagardia said. “We have to undergo a deep tissue analysis of the signatures and the ballots.”
He added that in order for the system to change, “we have to take this to the last consequences.”
Voter confidence has taken a nosedive on an island already highly suspect of the political system and players. In a recent poll in El Nuevo Día, the newspaper of record of Puerto Rico, 82 percent of respondents said they thought that the discrepancies and other irregularities were delinquent acts by both parties.
“It is the system itself and the parties themselves that have led to voter apathy and lack of confidence,” Sagardia said.
“What needs to be protected here is the right of the voter, which transcends partisan battles,” he said.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is a former News Director for Univisión Puerto Rico and has worked for ABC News, the Associated Press Television News in London and CNN International. She writes a Blog for www.magacin.com called Susanne en la Ciudad.