Here’s What We Know About Puerto Rico’s Historic Yet Botched Mayoral Election

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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It should be known by now who won the mayoral race in San Juan, or at least who’s projected to win. But the appearance of cases of uncounted early voting ballots, plus thousands more uncounted from actual election day, have left the people of Puerto Rico in doubt.

“It’s going to be days, possibly weeks, until we have a final result,” says Manuel Natal Albelo, representing the brand-new, very progressive Citizens’ Victory Movement. Natal, along with his opponent, Miguel Romero, of the conservative New Progressives Party that’s one of the island’s two staple parties, is at the center of the debacle.

As of now, Romero is ahead by about 2,300 votes—but Puerto Rico’s State Commission on Elections hasn’t closed the counting process yet.

An estimated 184 briefcases have popped up since election day last week. Natal says there’s maybe 6,000 votes from election day still uncataloged; broken voting machines and voting centers in schools without power are part of why there’s still so much work left to do.

There’s a general consensus on who the governor will be: Pedro Pierluisi, an established pro-statehood politician of the same conservative party of current governor Wanda Vázquez. (It’s the same party as Ricardo Rosselló, whom she replaced when he resigned after weeks of protest in the summer of 2019. For more on the people’s successful movement to oust Rosselló, suspected of corruption and scandalized by a leaked chat in which he mocked Hurricane Maria’s dead, among other offenses, read up here.)

While the person occupies La Fortaleza, or the Governor’s Mansion, remains a symbol of the island’s conservatism, elsewhere there were big changes.

Voter turnout, particularly among young people, was unprecedented. And for progressives, huge milestones were achieved: The senate and house are more mixed than ever by the election of additional Independents (a longtime third party) and members of the Citizen’s Victory Movement, the brand-new party to which Natal belongs. And he’s the first-ever candidate outside the two-party system to get this close to becoming San Juan’s mayor.

Still, there’s more to unpack—like, 184 briefcases worth of information, really. Natal sat down with REMEZCLA yesterday to help break it all down: here’s what you need to know.

REMEZCLA has reached out to opponent Miguel Romero but has yet to receive a response.

The New Electoral Code Is a (Maybe Intentional) Disaster

These changes were protested by the people as well as other politicians of other parties, but the currently-in-power New Progressives Party managed to push a new code through anyway, and Gov. Vázquez—in June, in the middle of a pandemic, no less—signed it into law.

One of the most “controversial projects” of her short tenure, the new electoral code widely expanded absentee and early voting eligibility, and also eliminated the positions of several State Commission on Elections members, Natal points out.

While neither of these moves sounds malicious outright, they were expected by those who opposed them to be problematic in practice—because the systems necessary for a smooth implementation weren’t included in the plans.

“I think some of the chaos has been intentional,” Natal says. “Because the party in power is always the one that controls the Commission,” he says. “It has more employees, it has more control over the process… I think the New Progressives Party sought to cause chaos in the commission.”

Natal isn’t alone in his concerns about strategic calamity: Puerto Ricans expressed distrust in the election process just recently.

The MVS Is Investigating Early Voting Ballots

“More than 200 thousand people supposedly, allegedly, solicited the early vote,” Natal says. The MVC is auditing these votes now, and not because most of them favor Romero.

“We’re finding a lot of irregularities of people who didn’t ask for the early vote, people who realized they’d been taken off the list of voters the day of,” he says. ‘When they went to vote, they couldn’t, because someone had solicited the early vote for them.”

At MVC offices in Río Piedras and Miramar, volunteers were diligently investigating these votes. “It’s not the same to say something as it is to prove it,” Natal says. “We want to be sure we have the evidence to document adequately what happened.”

Problems With Machines on Election Day

Natal says he and his camp had signaled well ahead of the election that many voting machines needed maintenance. That service wasn’t done—at least not thoroughly enough. (Note from the writer: I can vouch myself that the machine where I voted in San Juan was broken. I filed my voting sheet into a cardboard box.) Other machines didn’t read votes correctly, especially for voters who chose candidates among a mix of parties.

The general scrutiny process post-election is standard, and it likely begins tomorrow, Natal says. That’s when these votes will be analyzed.

The Next Steps

Day-of votes favored Natal: He had 39% and Romero had 34%, he says. There are about thousands of votes from election day that will soon be factored in. If that tendency continues, Natal says, he should get the lead. With the early votes counted, though, it could be Romero’s numbers that increase.

Where this is likely going, according not only to Natal but also many others, is a recount. It’s a slim margin of .5% that’ll trigger the procedure, but the MVC is confident that’s the next step, and that it will favor their party.

The Citizens' Victory Movement Continues, No Matter What

Whether Natal becomes San Juan’s mayor or not, there are a handful of MVC candidates who did win their seats. One of them is Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, who’s made history in becoming the first openly gay elected lawmaker. Another is Mariana Nogales Molinelli, also a political pioneer: She’s Puerto Rico’s first-ever openly atheist lawmaker.

The generous support for his party, established only last year, as well as his individual candidacy is another new landmark in Puerto Rico’s political landscape. On election night, hundreds swarmed both MVC offices, one in Río Piedras, the other in Miramar, to rally for the party.

“With every way you look at it, the person who’s prevailing now as candidate for governor only has a little more than 32%. That says a lot about how exhausted people are with these parties, and how there’s a sector growing in the country that doesn’t feel represented by either party,” he says.

When the MVC called for help in counting votes early the day after election day, hundreds showed up, Natal says. To accommodate everyone, they moved the training to the plaza outdoors.

“We know the country won’t be changed in a day,” he says. “We know that what we’re building is bigger than one election.”