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Puerto Rico partially suspends primary voting because of a lack of ballots at polling places

A uniformed official turns away two masked voters at a polling center lacking ballots in Carolina, Puerto Rico
An official turns away two voters at a polling center lacking ballots in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. The U.S. territory’s primaries were marred by a lack of ballots at polling centers across the island.
(Danica Coto / Associated Press)

Puerto Rico was forced Sunday to partially suspend voting for primaries marred by a lack of ballots as officials called on the president of the U.S. territory’s elections commission to resign.

Primary voting was expected to be rescheduled for centers that had not received ballots by early afternoon, while voting would continue elsewhere, the commission said.

“I have 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,” said Pedro Pierluisi, who is running against Gov. Wanda Vázquez to become the nominee for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

Meanwhile, Vázquez called the situation “a disaster” and demanded the resignation of the president of the elections commission.

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“They made the people of Puerto Rico, not the candidates, believe that they were prepared,” she said. “Today the opposite was evident. They lied.”

A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances issued a statement saying the “dysfunctional” voting process was unacceptable and blamed the problems on what it said was inefficiency by the elections commission.

The unprecedented situation comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.2 million people that has reported more than 13,100 probable cases, more than 8,900 confirmed cases and at least 279 deaths.

Gireliz Zambrana, a 31-year-old federal employee, worried about the number of people gathered at a voting center in Río Grande as they huddled together while waiting for it to open.

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“They were trying to get away from the sun,” he said, adding that he never got to cast his vote.

The president of the governor’s party, Thomas Rivera Schatz, and the president of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party held a joint news conference and said they agreed the remaining primaries should be held Aug. 16, a move that Vázquez said she supported. The winners of the two parties’ primary elections will be among six gubernatorial candidates in November’s general election.

Other politicians argued that the entire primary should be scrapped and held at another date.

An incredulous Schatz noted that trucks with ballots inside were still parked at the elections commission’s headquarters as they spoke at the news conference.

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“The question is, why haven’t they left?” he said.

It was not immediately clear how many voters were turned away or how many centers received delayed ballots. A commission spokeswoman said the president was not granting interviews.

To further complicate things, Edgardo Román, president of the Bar Assn. of Puerto Rico, said it’s unclear what alternatives are legally viable under the territory’s electoral law.

“It doesn’t contemplate this scenario,” he said.

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Frustrated voters who wore the required face coverings and braved the coronavirus surge were turned away from polling centers across Puerto Rico as officials told them that no ballots were available.

The situation infuriated voters and politicians of all stripes as they blamed Puerto Rico’s elections commission and demanded an explanation for why ballots had reached only a handful of voting centers by the afternoon.

“This is indignant, abusive and an attempt against the democracy of our country,” said Marcos Cruz, mayor of the northern town of Vega Baja, which was still awaiting ballots.

Meanwhile, officials from the island’s two main parties scrambled to find solutions as they urged voters to still show up at centers that remained open.

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Yadira Pizarro, a 44-year-old teacher, ran out of patience at a shuttered voting center in Carolina where she had waited more than four hours under a blistering sun.

“I cannot believe this. This is some serious negligence,” she said.

One of the most closely watched races is that of the Progressive New Party, which pits two candidates who served as replacement governors after last year’s political turmoil ended Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's term. Vázquez faces Pierluisi, who represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009 to 2017.

Pierluisi briefly served as governor after Rosselló resigned in August 2019 following widespread street protests over government corruption and a leaked, profanity-laced chat. But Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that Vázquez, then the justice secretary, was instead constitutionally next in line because there was no secretary of state.

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Meanwhile, the Popular Democratic Party, which supports Puerto Rico’s current political status as a U.S. territory, is holding a primary for the first time in its 82-year history. Three people are vying to become the party’s nominee for governor — San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, known for her public spats with President Trump following the devastation of Hurricane Maria; Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia; and Carlos Delgado, mayor of the northwest coastal town of Isabela.


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