Thousands of ballots changing the results of the Puerto Rican elections are resulting in the disenfranchisement of a large sector of the Puerto Rican electorate

Contacto: Lcdo. William Ramírez Hernández (787) 753-8493 ACLU - PUERTO RICO

On November 2, 2004, over 80% of the registered voters in Puerto Rico exercised their constitutional right to choose their elected officials and the next governing body of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in the island’s general elections. The end result of which would presumably reflect the will of the people.

Since then, the Puerto Rico election has dubiously evolved into an unprecedented dispute over what ballots should be counted and what ballots should be set aside. Let there be no confusion, these allegedly spoiled ballots are not hanging chads, nor unambiguous markings. Rather, the intent of the voter can clearly be ascertained from the ballots. At issue are anywhere from 21,000 to 28,000 cast ballots which, if some have their way, will be set aside; thereby presumably changing the results of the Puerto Rican elections and resulting in the disenfranchisement of a large sector of the Puerto Rican electorate. As recognized by judicial precedent, at jeopardy is nothing less the integrity of the electoral process.

The ACLU of Puerto Rico does not endorse any particular outcome in the electoral process. However, it is the ACLU’s position that every vote MUST be counted, and only those ballots that do not clearly reflect the intent of the voter can be set aside. This can cut either way. The ACLU stands for fundamental fairness, and for the premise that the will of the people to be governed, and by whom they are to be governed, is paramount in a democratic society.

In this electoral dispute, it has been stated that to count these allegedly ambiguous ballots would have the unfair effect of diluting the votes of those citizens that clearly understood the process and therefore validly exercised there right to vote. The ACLU of Puerto Rico believes that the potential for disenfranchising from 20,000 to 28,000 votes is a much greater concern; while the first group of voters had an opportunity to vote and have their vote counted, the second will be left out in the cold. The greater loss however is to our trust in the electoral process and to the ideal that we have a fundamental right to be governed by duly elected officials in a freely held election.

The ACLU of Puerto Rico and the ACLU’s Atlanta, Georgia, based Voting Rights Project have been keeping a close watch at the events that have been unfolding and truly lament the turn for the worse that the electoral process has taken as a result of attempts to set aside what could well turn out to be the decisive votes in this contest. We have witnessed the massive outpouring of anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 citizens onto our avenues, in protest over an attempt to have mixed ballots set aside and thereby potentially affect the outcome of the electoral contest at issue, as well as vigils by groups opposed to counting these ballots who have been granted a privileged status of protesting right in front of the gates of the U.S. District Court in San Juan. This by itself should have sounded a warning of events to come.

This Friday, December 10, 2004, another group of citizens exercised their constitutional right to protest over the unfolding events and the disenfranchisement of over 20,000 voters. Prior to this event, sympathizers of the opposing position that have set up a camp site in front of the Federal Courthouse, warned that they were willing to incur in violence against opposing protesters to defend their stance.

As could have been predicted, havoc broke out and a violent confrontation took place between the Commonwealth Police forces, National Guardsmen, and protesters. Several protesters were injured, as were Police officers. More protests have been announced on both sides of the dispute, and law enforcement will surely increase their presence.

There exists potential for more violence and even tragedy. The ACLU of Puerto Rico is making a public plea for a calm reflection over what is truly at issue. In the end, we will know who will be governing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and we will continue to live our lives as we have been before November 2, 2004. The party that does not prevail will have, and should have, the opportunity to continue to question the outcome of the electoral contest, but in the end must also accept the will of the people.

The ACLU of Puerto Rico will be taking aggressive steps to protect the right to vote and ensure that every vote is counted. The ACLU of Puerto Rico has full faith that the Elections Commission of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the agency with the necessary expertise and mandate to do so, will properly and fairly adjudicate the contested votes and in the end certify the true winner of this electoral campaign. The ACLU of Puerto Rico believes that to do otherwise would undermine and irreparably damage our belief in a fundamentally just and fair democratic electoral system.

The ACLU of Puerto Rico supports the Amicus Brief to be filed by the Puerto Rico Bar Association with the First Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals before the December 13, 2004 hearing in Boston in as much as it invokes the Court’s long standing premise that every vote must be counted, and that we must look to the clear intent of the voter when the ballot was cast when making a determination as to whether it is properly counted. Through its Puerto Rico Chapter, volunteer staff, cooperating attorneys, and its Voting Rights Project, the ACLU will be keeping a close tab on coming events and will be closely watching for any further attempts to curtail the citizenry’s right to have all votes count, and it’s fundamental right to express discontent with the handling of the election results - free of any intimidation or show of force.

“Porque la democracia no se defiende a si misma, un buen ciudadano no calla.”