The right to vote is essential to democracy. Puerto Rico must protect the body responsible for guaranteeing that exercise and seek its correct operation.
The Puerto Rico State Elections Commission (CEE, Spanish acronym) has to reform its structure and operations to adjust the budget and maximize the use of public funds. It is damaging to Puerto Rico that an agency with only three years in office spends more than $ 30 million annually in staff and contractors of the three registered parties when they are not necessary all the time.
The request for additional funds to hold special elections in November and primaries in June requires deep scrutiny on how the agency is managing its budget in order to ensure that it prioritizes the upcoming electoral processes.
A dialogue with the Oversight Board to document and implement budget adjustments is also urgent. Despite valid austerity measures, funds must be made available to hold elections and preserve the integrity of each vote.
The agency states it needs more than $ 25 million for next year´s pre-election processes, local and presidential primaries. It is also requesting $ 131,796 to hold special elections for two Senate seats and two mayors in two municipalities. It argues that these weren’t included in the $28 million budget authorized by the Board. They had originally requested a $ 53 million budget for this fiscal year.
The CEE requested four reallocations of funds and used one of them to pay for professional services and payroll, in addition to paying the company that sold the electronic voting system. Meanwhile, voting machines are still stored lacking maintenance due to debt and it is anticipated that they will not be used in the next elections because of economic reasons. Machines are necessary for processes such as primaries, as a transparency mechanism.
CEE’s arguments show a clear administrative deficiency. As it happens with Puerto Rico, the agency seems to have a culture of requesting more funds without sticking to the new budgetary reality. This way, the agency appears as a creature of a political class that is indifferent to the bankruptcy and austerity measures demanded of the people. Instead of putting democratic processes at risk, every expense should be evaluated. In the short term, those funds the CEE lacks can be found, for example, by cutting unnecessary contracts in the legislature.
In the long term, Governor Wanda Vázquez has the opportunity to call the leadership of the three parties and other groups to seek consensus to reorganize and make the CEE more efficient. It should also be evaluated, for example, how unnecessary it is to have a Permanent Registration Board in each town when with less staff, -always with representation from each party-, registration processes can be carried out or voters’ problems solved without the need to pay locally and multiply the list of employees without duties. In the past, the CEE also facilitated access to potential voters, taking registration tables to high schools, which also encouraged the participation of young people.
Any changes to be agreed won´t be implemented until the next term in order to avoid disrupting this and next year´s electoral processes
This will not be the first time that the island´s parties reach an agreement to benefit our democracy. Electoral redistribution agreements have been reached on five occasions. But it is untenable for the CEE to continue draining funds in superfluous expenses, those funds should be used to efficiently and reliably protect our electoral system.
The electoral institution, an essential instrument of democracy, must prevail over the voracity of a deficient administrative system that has been supported by local political parties.