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Sept. 20, 2020

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Puerto Ricans, upset at botched primary, demand accountability

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Electoral officials wait for ballots to arrive at a voting center in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Puerto Rico's primaries were marred by a lack of ballots in a majority of centers across the U.S. territory, forcing frustrated voters who braved a spike in COVID-19 cases to turn around and go back home.
Electoral officials wait for ballots to arrive at a voting center in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Puerto Rico's primaries were marred by a lack of ballots in a majority of centers across the U.S. territory, forcing frustrated voters who braved a spike in COVID-19 cases to turn around and go back home. (AP Photo/Danica Coto) (Danica Coto/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The future of Puerto Rico’s botched primaries rested in the hands of the island’s Supreme Court as answers trickled out Monday on why voting centers lacked ballots and forced officials to reschedule part of the primaries in a blow to the U.S. territory’s democracy.

A plan to hold another primary on Aug. 16 for centers that could not open on Sunday could change depending on the ruling of a lawsuit filed by Pedro Pierluisi, who is running against Gov. Wanda Vazquez to become the potential nominee of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. Joining the lawsuit was Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Maria Dolores Santiago, the electoral commission official for the New Progressive Party, told The Associated Press that key officials knew about the problems leading up to the primary on Sunday, but nobody did anything to stop it. She said the last of the remaining ballots arrived Saturday at 8:30 p.m., days behind schedule, and that trucks loaded with the ballots and electronic voting machines didn’t leave until Sunday, the day of the primary, when normally they depart one or two days beforehand.

Santiago repeatedly refused to answer questions including why she didn’t personally suggest that the primaries be delayed during Saturday’s meeting with the president of the electoral commission. She only said that at the time, the general agreement was to go ahead and hold the primary.

“Maybe other decisions should have been taken, but we have to work with reality,” she said. “It’s unfair to throw around blame.”

Gov. Wanda Vazquez and other top officials from the island’s two main parties have demanded that the president of the elections commission resign after a lack of ballots meant people were only able to vote in nearly 60 of 110 precincts on Sunday. Carlos Mendez, president of the island’s House of Representatives, also demanded the commission release the results of the completed votes.

Juan Ernesto Davila, the commission’s president, told The Associated Press that there was never a discussion with Santiago or any other official about changing the primaries’ date.

“We were focused on trying to push out this electoral event,” he said. “I don’t think it was a mistake …there were a lot of factors playing against us.”

Among them, he mentioned the pandemic, Tropical Storm Isaias, and a last-minute request from the two main parties to print more than 75,000 additional ballots. He said he is now focused on trying to find funds and materials needed for the additional primary.

“What would we have done differently? I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on solving the situation,” he said.

It was the first time primaries have been halted and led many to worry that it has cracked Puerto Ricans’ confidence in their government and could affect the outcome of upcoming November general elections.

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