Puerto Rico Cannot Afford Another Disaster: Protect the Integrity of Its 2020 Elections (OPINION)

May 14, 2020
9:09 AM

Puerto Rico’s Capitol building (Brad Clinesmith)

As states race to protect voters from COVID-19 and their votes from foreign interference next November, Puerto Rico appears to be running in the opposite direction.  A new electoral code will allow internet voting and tie up scarce resources that could be used to avoid contagion on election day. The code is slated to become law unless Governor Wanda Vázquez vetoes it before May 16.

No country has been able to deploy an internet voting system that is impervious to attacks. The federal government has clearly warned states that internet voting is not secure and is subject to systemic disruption by malicious hackers. Yet Puerto Rico’s new electoral code would make internet voting accessible to all voters by 2028.

Why has the Puerto Rican legislature ignored these warnings and passed this legislation? Opponents have suggested internet voting could open a backdoor for Puerto Ricans who have left the island to vote. No one knows for sure but there is a perception that these voters are supporters of the ruling pro-statehood party.

To explain this point, a little legislative history is in order. The new electoral code is backed by the pro-statehood party, which controls the legislature and governorship. The bill was rejected by all opposition parties for reasons beyond internet voting. These include consolidating power within the electoral commission and enabling Puerto Ricans to cast symbolic votes for the U.S. president and vice president starting in 2024.

Only one hearing was held last year prior to the ousting of then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The legislation was passed on a party line vote in January but sent to Governor Vázquez for signature in May, smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the bill, internet voting will be available this November only for absentee voters and individuals with certain disabilities or mobility problems. Internet voting will be accessible to all Puerto Rican voters in all types of elections by 2028, at which point the electoral commission will determine whether traditional voting methods are still necessary.

There is a belief, although no public hard data to back it, that the Puerto Rican diaspora —particularly in Florida— is pro-statehood.  Well over 100,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the United States after Hurricane María and the majority of them settled in Florida. It has been suggested that under the new electoral code, these recent arrivals —still registered to vote in Puerto Rico— could cast absentee ballots.

The statehood party is also pushing legislation to hold a plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico on election day. (The last one was held in 2017.) The electoral commission budget request of $23 million, which does not include the plebiscite nor internet voting, is pending approval of the Fiscal Oversight Management Board.

The possibility of opening an entire election system to voter manipulation and fraud has caught the attention of national organizations.  The ACLU, Verified Voting, Protect Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all raised the alarm on the use of internet voting in Puerto Rico and have communicated their objections to Governor Vázquez.

With elections less than six months away, Governor Vázquez must decide whether to invest time and resources in a new voting system or in figuring out how cast paper ballots without spreading the virus. Although Governor Vázquez’s decision to impose a strict lockdown contained the spread of COVID-19, Puerto Ricans are worried by unresolved delays in testing and contact tracing. COVID-19 cases are still on the rise and there is little data on the expected trajectory of the disease. People are unlikely to vote if their personal safety is at stake.

For the next COVID-19 package funding, the U.S. House of Representatives wants to include to cover the cost of vote-by-mail, no-excuse absentee voting, and personal protective equipment for poll workers. Vote-by-mail presents a serious challenge to Puerto Rico where 60% of the population resides in structures that lack a valid civic address. Should these federal funds become available, the Puerto Rican government will have to figure out how to best use them to protect their citizenry on Election Day.

An electoral code must be supported by the entire electorate to have legitimacy and integrity. Trying to reach political consensus on the code in the middle of a pandemic is impossible.

The United States gave Puerto Ricans the right to vote for their own governor 72 years ago. It is a right they treasure, especially because they are disenfranchised at the federal level. Over the decades, Puerto Ricans have grown distrustful of their elected officials and their governments. But they have never lost their trust in their electoral system and its results. To hijack or suppress their vote would do grave damage to one of the few public institutions they still believe in.

UPDATE, May 14, 10:30 am ET: A May 14 tweet by Governor Vázquez said that she would like to delay debate and vote on the electoral reform bill due to concerns about online voting.


Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a Puerto Rico advocate. She heads the consulting firm Polivox787. Twitter: @GSierraZorita.