With the objection from all political opposition parties and just weeks away from primary elections, yesterday New Progressive Party (PNP) Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced signed into law the new version of the Electoral Code proposed by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz.
In written statements, Vázquez Garced said that when it´s about "complex bills such as the different Codes, it is extremely difficult for all parties to completely agree on all points,” and added that her “responsibility as governor is to examine the measure in its entirety. Once that was amended (online voting, one of the main objections to the Code), and after reviewing it again, I have decided to sign this important bill into law."
The governor, who argued to have heard claims by all sectors, did not call a conference to answer questions on the issue.
In the press release, the governor stressed that Senate Bill 1314 was amended and that the online voting which initially raised objections from organizations not only in Puerto Rico but in the United States, was eliminated.
However, other objections from political minorities that were blocking consensus, such as eliminating vice presidencies and undersecretaries at the State Elections Commission (SEC), remained in the bill. The governor argued that these changes reduce government spending by $500,000 in the case of the vice presidencies. She also noted that "absentee voting" and "early voting" were expanded, an issue strongly objected to by the other parties.
According to the statement released by La Fortaleza, any voter active in the General Voter Registry who requests the early voting method and swears that on Election Day he or she would have complications attending a Voting College for reasons of work, being a single caregiver, hospitalization, travel, being a candidate, physical handicap, confined, a voter who is bedridden or other reasons, and voter living in a care center will have the right to vote. This part, the governor said, was a recommendation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Senator Eduardo Bhatia, a Popular Democratic Party (PDP) candidate for governor, interpreted the bill as an attempt to facilitate the postal vote of PNP supporters who left the island.
Upon learning of the new law, PDP President Aníbal Jose Torres said the governor "betrayed” Puerto Rico because she had originally talked about consensus among parties before reforming the electoral law.
"The governor didn't keep her word. It was she who publicly expressed that she would not sign a bill that lacked the endorsement of all the interested groups. It was she who not only failed to keep her word, but also failed Puerto Rico by signing the Electoral Code into law," Torres said.
"By signing the electoral reform, the governor demonstrated thatshe prefers to align herself with a part of the PNP instead of representing all Puerto Ricans. A huge betrayal of her initial commitment and especially of Puerto Rico" said Puerto Rican Independence Party Electoral Commissioner Roberto Iván Aponte.
The governor, however, said, "We agree that Puerto Ricans should exercise their right to vote, without putting their health or that of their families at risk. There is no reason why any Puerto Rican residing on the island and active in the Electoral Registry but who will not be in Puerto Rico on Election Day, should be deprived of his or her rights.” The newly signed into law Code will also extend opening hours of polling stations from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A month ago, PPD leaders, the Movimiento de Victoria Ciudadana )Citizens Victory Movement), and the Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project) expressed their opposition to the bill and asked the governor to veto it.
According to arguments by the opposition, these changes to the law come very close to the primaries and general elections. They also pointed out that this electoral reform is taking place without cross-party consensus which has been the rule in partisan politics for decades.
Rivera Schatz, the author of the bill, argued that -during the debate on the bill a few weeks ago - minorities opposition to the measure responded to an attempt to limit people's right to vote, to prevent early voting and absentee voting. He also noted that the PPD had previously amended the electoral law without reaching consensus.
"It will go down in history as the day that Wanda Vázquez and the PNP leadership endorsed electoral fraud and theft. Signing that Electoral Code into law has destroyed 40 years of consensus in Puerto Rico and the possibilities of electoral peace. If she has declared war, then we go to the trenches," Bhatia reacted.