Puerto Rico Slashes Polling Places For The Democratic Primary, Laying The Groundwork For Chaos

Puerto Rico residents wait to vote in the U.S. territory’s primary at a polling station in the Santurce county, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS GIUSTI
Puerto Rico residents wait to vote in the U.S. territory’s primary at a polling station in the Santurce county, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS GIUSTI

In early May, Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party announced that more than 1,500 polling places would be available for the island’s June 5 Democratic primary. A few weeks later, they slashed that number to just over 430 — a reduction of more than two thirds.

In 2008, the island’s last competitive Democratic primary, there were more than 2,300 polling places.

Some are warning of long lines and voters left unable to access the ballot box, as an estimated 700,000 Puerto Ricans will vote this Sunday, and polling places will only be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m..

Worse, many voters will have to visit two separate locations to cast ballots in the presidential primary and the local primaries held the same day. Voter turnout and engagement has for years been much higher on the island than in the 50 U.S. states, but these changes may present too heavy a burden for low-income residents who lack transportation options or who need to work.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are up in arms about the polling place reductions, calling it a “fix” and drawing parallels to Arizona’s disastrous primary. Arizona’s most populous county closed two-thirds of its polling locations ahead of its April primary, forcing some voters to wait in line more than six hours to cast a ballot.

Arizona Hit With Lawsuit Over Its Disastrous Primary DayPolitics by CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York This Friday, a group of Maricopa County voters will sue the state of Arizona…thinkprogress.orgPuerto Rico’s population has dramatically plummeted over the last decade, as hundreds of thousands have fled high poverty and unemployment to the U.S. mainland. The island’s debt crisis has also gotten so bad that the government can barely carry out its basic functions, like keeping schools and hospitals open.

The primary elections cost $15 million to administer in 2012. This year, the island’s election commission received only $7.2 million.

Yet the Democratic Party did not cite any of these reasons when it announced the poll closures. Rather, the head of the island’s Democratic Party, Clinton supporter Roberto Prats, defended the move by arguing there would still be four times as many polling places than were open during the Republican primary back in March. But the island’s population leans sharply Democratic, so far more people will be voting Sunday than in March’s Republican contest.

The Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for an interview.

Nowhere on the Electoral Commission’s or the Democratic Party’s website are the reductions announced.

Clinton campaign spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa told ThinkProgress that Clinton will “continue to fight…to make it easier to vote, not harder, and that includes ensuring that the voters in Puerto Rico have access to a polling location that is convenient.”

Sanders spokesperson Ernesto Curriel told local media in Puerto Rico that their campaign staff “have made sure that the polling sites this Sunday will be located in both urban centers and distant areas, to give the most access possible for rural residents. For example, they agreed to open a site in Poblado Castañer de Lares, because it would have been impossible for residents there to travel more than an hour to vote in the next nearest site.”

With the race for the Democratic nomination in its final throes, Sanders and Clinton are fighting it out for every last remaining delegate. Puerto Rico’s Sunday election, with the 60 delegates at stake, could put Clinton extremely close to the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Alternatively, it could give Sanders’ struggling campaign a ray of hope going into California’s race next Tuesday.

Though they are full U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico’s population can only vote in presidential primaries and local elections, not the general election this November. With only a third of the polling locations originally designated for Sunday’s contest, some fear many residents will not be able to make their voice heard at all in the federal race.