Yesterday, 5 June 2016, the Puerto Rico Democratic Party may have committed the greatest voter suppression of the 2016 election cycle.
Start with the most egregious: in the week before the primary, the party slashed the number of polling places from 1510 to 432. As a comparison, in 2008, there were 2306 polling places, and slightly under 400,000 people voted. According to one source, local officials estimated that up to 700,000 people might show up to vote. So why did the party reduce the number of polling places?
Ostensibly, there was a shortage of volunteer poll workers, since the local primary was being held on the same day, and they had been committed to the local campaign. And why were the national and local primaries being held on the same day? According to the party, it was a means of containing costs.
And so it was uncertain, in many people’s minds, exactly where they were to vote. In fact, I received an email from the Sanders campaign that allowed me to enter my electoral card number. I then received the information: I am 59, 6’2”, male, blue eyed. Oh, and I was to vote a mile or so away from my home in Old San Juan. So my husband and I planned to take the bus, zip into the polling place, vote, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
In fact, we arrived and found that the local primary had at most a line of ten or fifteen people. The Democratic Primary, in contrast, had a line of about 100 people. In addition, there were only two people with the list of registered voters. And so we began a long wait.
We had arrived at 1:45; I voted at 3:15. At that time, the line was essentially the same length as it had been when we arrived: it was going to be a long time before the poll workers could start counting the votes.
Elections in Puerto Rico historically have been comparatively clean, since up until now, we have chosen low-tech versus high. Which means that both parties (or all parties) have a representative working the polls, paper ballots are used, voters mark an “X” for their party or candidate, and the votes are counted manually and verified by all parties. As deeply green as I am, this is one use of paper that is completely justified.
Our line was one of two: we were the “orphans” from other polling places. And so there was a much shorter line of fifteen or twenty people voting in their usual polling place. So what was the final vote, and how many voters were able to cast their ballot? Well, here are two screens shot of the State Elections Commission, posted as of 1 AM this morning, ten hours after the polls closed.
Several things are interesting: first, “reported polling stations 232 of 335.” 335? Wait, first it was 1510, then on Friday it was 432, and on Sunday, the day of the election, it was 335?
Second, Clinton has “won” by a nearly 60% lead. But that’s 36,000 votes: some 70% of the total. I admit it: I am math-challenged. Still, even I can tell you that if that 36,000 votes were from 50% of polling stations, then you would reasonably expect 72,000 votes for Clinton. So in 2008, almost 400,000 people voted: now, Clinton is winning with 60% of the vote, with almost 70% of the vote counted, and that’s only 36000 votes? These numbers don’t add up.
Third, there were irregularities at the polls. In regular elections, there are cardboard voting booths—flimsy affairs, yes, but they do assure privacy. There was none of that here, and so I calmly observed my brother-in-law as he voted for Sanders (easy—Sanders was on the right margin of the ballot). In addition, the finger-marking ink was not used (the ink is visible only to ultra-violet light).
As well, the polls were open only from 8 AM to 3 PM. Puerto Ricans are religious: we go to church. So if mass ends around 11 AM, you need to eat lunch, you want to vote in the local primary, and then you have to go to possibly another polling place to vote in the Democratic Primary—well, that’s a scramble. Oh, and where is that polling place? Because in the space of a week, the number went from 1510 to (apparently) 335.
Nor was this all. In Puerto Rico, prisoners can vote. They do so, and then their votes are sealed in locked boxes to be counted with the non-prisoner votes. But the Sanders campaign is alleging that the Democratic Party didn’t certify their delegates to go into the prison: they had to use a well-known local lawyer, Manny Suárez, to get their way into the prison. Nor was that all: Suárez stated:
el pasado jueves “se celebraron sorpresivamente elecciones de las primarias presidenciales en forma adelantada para la Policía de Puerto Rico y nunca nos avisaron”.
(Last Thursday, the presidential primaries were held by surprise in advance for the Police of Puerto Rico and we were never notified.)
Worse, Suárez alleges that the Ñeta gang, which controls many of the prisons, had threatened any members with death if they voted for anyone other than Clinton, as well as the NPP, or statehood party.
“Vamos a radicar un recurso legal en el Tribunal Federal pidiendo la anulación de todas esas papeletas. A nosotros nunca nos avisaron y cada una de esas papeletas es nula porque no tiene nuestra firma. En adición a eso, hay otros funcionarios del Gobierno que también votaron por adelantado y que entiendo que son los que van a estar activados el domingo”, apuntó.
(We’re going to file a legal suit in Federal Court requesting the annulment of all these ballots. They never notified us, and every one of these ballots is void because they don’t have our signature. In addition to that, there are other government official who also voted in advance, and who will be active on Sunday (ed. the day of the primary).
In addition, Suárez alleges that a local politician prominent in the Democratic Party, Kenneth McClintock, tweeted on Thursday that the prison vote was favoring Clinton. Given that the votes are supposed to be sealed unseen, how would he know?
Well, I though about all this as I waited in line, since I had quite a bit of time to occupy. And where, I wondered, was the press? Because there we all were, enjoying or not the unique pleasure of having our vote suppressed, and shouldn’t somebody be noticing? Ah, and then the televisions news appeared, and began filming people voting; as well, they interviewed several officials. It was WAPA television, and can I find their clip? No, though I did get the clip of the results of the primary. Unfortunately, the clip failed to load: you try it.
According to the print edition of the largest paper on the island, El Nuevo Día, the local Democratic Party president is well satisfied with the primary, although he admitted there were long lines. (You can read the electronic version here.) He is upset, however, by the allegation of one of Sander’s staff, Betsy Franceschini. Here’s what he said:
I am appalled at the remarks. Ms. Franceschini is playing a preemption game because she knows of a potentially serious issue regarding one of their poll workers who took two boxes full of cast ballots from one of the prisons and later that evening delivered them to a regional elections committee center, claiming she did not know what to do with them. The matter is under investigation.
To my knowledge, El Nuevo Día has said little about this, though in one story, they reported that it was the Sanders campaign that requested the reduction of polling places by two thirds. A photo of the long lines at the polls also appeared. The Sanders campaign responded:
Some Puerto Rico Democratic officials are claiming that the Sanders campaign requested fewer polling places in today’s primary contest. That’s completely false. The opposite is true. In emails with the party, Sanders’ staff asked the party to maintain the 1,500 plus presidential primary locations promised by the Puerto Rico Democratic party in testimony before the DNC in April, when the party was asking to have its caucus changed to a primary. They cannot blame their shoddy running of the primary on our campaign. This is just one example of irregularities going on in Puerto Rico voting today. We are the campaign that has been fighting to increase voter participation.
So what happened yesterday? Perhaps nothing tells the story better than the last line of today’s electronic report from El Nuevo Día:
En estas elecciones demócratas, participaron alrededor de 100,000 electores.
The lines were huge, the wait was long, and in the end, only 100,000 votes were cast. That’s 300,000 less than 2008. I was there, I saw it, and I can call it.
So I will!