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Democratic Leaders In Puerto Rico Play The Blame Game While Voters Are Disenfranchised

Puerto Rico resident Hector Feliciano votes during the U.S. territory’s Democratic primary election at the Luis Llorens Torres Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS GIUSTI
Puerto Rico resident Hector Feliciano votes during the U.S. territory’s Democratic primary election at the Luis Llorens Torres Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS GIUSTI

Some Democratic voters in Puerto Rico waited two to three hours in the tropical sun to cast a ballot on Sunday, causing many who couldn’t wait to give up and leave without voting.

Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory that her opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is not contesting. But the Sanders campaign and Puerto Rico’s local Democratic Party are trading accusations about who is responsible for the decision to slash the number of polling places on the island by more than two thirds — from more than 1,500 to fewer than 430 — just weeks before the election.

When local reporters challenged Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party president Roberto Prats, he shrugged it off as a sign of a healthy democracy.

“If the problem is that many people are participating, that’s a good problem to have,” he told the newspaper El Nuevo Dia. “The important thing is that the voters had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

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Yet the polling location cuts significantly depressed turnout. While local officials expected more than 700,000, only 60,671 made it to the ballot box. Though voter turnout in Puerto Rico is usually much higher than in the 50 U.S. states, Sunday’s Democratic race had a dismal showing of just 3.45 percent of eligible voters.

After spending weeks telling the press that the decision to reduce the number of polling sites was based on lack of funding and a lack of poll workers, the local Democratic Party changed its story Sunday and claimed that the Sanders campaign requested the cuts.

Sanders’ campaign called this accusation “completely false.”

“The opposite is true,” the campaign said. “In emails with the party, Sanders’ staff asked the party to maintain the 1,500 plus presidential primary locations promised by the Puerto Rico Democratic party in testimony before the DNC in April, when the party was asking to have its caucus changed to a primary.”

“They cannot blame their shoddy running of the primary on our campaign,” they concluded.

Polls closed at 3 p.m., but because the ballots were counted by hand — the Democratic Party could not afford electronic tally machines — Clinton was not declared the winner until late in the evening.

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Though they are full American citizens, Puerto Rico’s millions of residents cannot vote in the general election this November because of the island’s status as a U.S. territory. They also have no vote in Congress, where lawmakers are currently weighing a bill that would install an un-elected “control board” to manage the island’s finances. Sanders has been the most outspoken candidate against this system, calling it “neocolonial” and “beyond insulting.” Clinton has voiced support for the bill and urged its passage, while noting “serious concerns” about the financial control board.