Thousands of Uncounted Votes Found a Week After Election in Puerto Rico

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Nearly 200 boxes of uncounted votes have surfaced in Puerto Rico, a full week after voters went to the polls to choose their governor, legislators and mayors across the island, dealing another black eye to the mistrusted government.

The discovery of uncounted ballots could have sweeping effects in close races around the island, in particular the tight contest for mayor of San Juan, where the sudden influx of new votes could force a recount. Officials acknowledged that the votes could change the results of particularly narrow races that had already been preliminarily certified. In the city of Culebra, the mayor’s race currently has a margin of just two votes; in Guánica, nine.

The electoral muddle — coming three months after a disastrous primary when people waited hours in sweltering heat for ballots that never arrived — further undermined confidence in the electoral process and underscored the deep distrust many residents have long had for the government.

“The whole tragedy here is not so much how it turns out in the end, but it’s that I don’t think anyone in Puerto Rico after a failed primary and this current process can really say they trust the system,” said William Ramírez, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Puerto Rico, which had sued to allow more absentee ballots. “We had a large turnout of young people; they voted for the first time, and this was their experience.”

The election followed a sea change in local politics last year when, tired of years of corruption scandals, masses of people took to the streets to force out the sitting governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, after leaked text messages showed him and his allies mocking gay people, women and even the hurricane dead.

Credit…Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

The electoral results last week in Puerto Rico were already making history.

Puerto Rican politics has for years been mainly controlled by two competing parties, focused largely on whether the island should become the 51st state or remain a commonwealth.

While Pedro R. Pierluisi, a traditional party hand from Mr. Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, won the governor’s race last week, people from outside traditional parties made impressive showings at the polls.

The results suggested that Puerto Rican voters, bucking precedent, had chosen particular candidates, not just parties. With six candidates in the governor’s race, including two from emerging political parties, Mr. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s former representative in Congress, won with 33 percent of the vote. The Independence Party candidate, who typically gets about 3 percent support, received 14 percent of the vote, as did the Citizens Victory Movement, a relatively new party.

For the first time, Puerto Rico’s Legislature will be made up of a solid mix of politicians from different parties. The senator who got the highest number of votes in an islandwide at-large race was from the Independence Party. Two religious conservatives were elected to the Legislature. And in the race for mayor of San Juan, a Citizens Victory Movement candidate, Manuel Natal Albelo, trailed by just over 2,000 votes. Rarely in recent years has someone from outside the two main parties come so close to being elected mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city.

Credit…Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

The results were preliminarily certified, even as candidates complained that some votes appeared to be missing.

“First they said they found four boxes of uncounted votes. Then it was 50, and last night 100,” said Fermín Arraiza, an elections observer. “I get there this morning, and it’s 115 boxes. Now I think it’s 190.”

Mr. Natal, the mayoral candidate in San Juan, said he was convinced that the new votes would force a recount. His opponent, Miguel Romero, has already changed his Twitter bio to “mayor-elect.”

“We have been saying for the last week that there had been thousands and thousands of ballots that were not accounted for,” Mr. Natal said. “Now not only did they admit that there are ballots that haven’t been counted, but the memory cards from the counting machines have gone missing.”

Mr. Natal said he was collecting affidavits from people who were turned away at the polls after being told they had already voted by mail, even though they had never requested absentee ballots. But he was not prepared to accuse anyone of committing fraud.

“This has created a level of uncertainty that we have never seen before in our electoral history in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Natal said.

Credit…Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

The president of Puerto Rico’s State Electoral Council, Francisco Rosado Colomer, acknowledged that the elections were disorganized, which he said was a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The unusual avalanche of mail-in votes made it hard to keep up, he said.

In the newly discovered boxes, many uncounted ballots from different precincts were found mixed together “in the wrong place, badly organized,” Mr. Rosado said. But he stressed that none of them had left the elections vault, and that their discovery underscored the transparency of the process.

It was unclear how many votes the boxes contained, he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“There are cases that have three ballots, there are cases that have 500,” he said. On Wednesday morning, he told WKAQ-580 AM radio that it could be between 3,000 and 4,000 votes.

“Trust in the transparency of the process,” Mr. Rosado said. “Every vote will be counted.”

“Asking that of the country is absurd,” Carmen Yulín Cruz, the outgoing mayor of San Juan, tweeted in response.

Critics blamed the ruling pro-statehood party, which this year changed the electoral law in fundamental ways that gave Mr. Rosado’s party more control over elections. The New Progressive Party’s representative on the elections council, Héctor J. Sánchez, insisted that the government’s party wanted every last vote counted.

Credit…Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

All of the opposition parties had agreed on Saturday to stop counting votes, he argued, despite lingering questions about ballots in some races that appeared to be missing.

In Puerto Rico, each race is voted on a different ballot, and there were discrepancies in the number of votes cast in some areas.

The ballots in the extra boxes were not really newly discovered, Mr. Sánchez claimed, but had been tagged with some kind of problem during the initial count and were set aside to be reconciled during the tally certification process.

“Unfortunately, there are people who are only interested in creating confusion and creating instability,” Mr. Sánchez said.

However, others disputed that the additional ballots had been tagged as problematic, and insisted that they had just been overlooked.

Roberto Iván Aponte, an elections council commissioner, said the final results would not be certified until December.

“It’s really irresponsible: A mayor who thinks he won is having transition committee meetings and is holding press conferences,” said Mr. Aponte, who represents the Independence Party on the board. “There are mayor races that are practically tied.”

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