Puerto Rico Voters May Face Long Lines in Presidential Primary

  • Island GOP voters will pick presidential candidate March 6
  • Voters have 110 polling stations, down from 1,500 in 2012

Puerto Ricoresidents may find themselves waiting longer than anticipated to vote during Sunday’s Republican Party presidential primary because of funding cuts triggered by the island’s financial crisis.

The commonwealth will operate 110 polling stations, down from about 1,500 in 2012 when residents voted in local elections and the presidential primary on the same day, according to Liza Garcia Velez, president of Puerto Rico’s election commission.

It may be the one way for territory residents, who aren’t eligible to vote in the November U.S. presidential election, to voice their displeasure as the commonwealth and its agencies struggle under a $70 billion debt load. Island officials are urging Congress to help Puerto Rico reduce those obligations by granting some form of restructuring powers. The island’s localities are unable to file for municipal bankruptcy, as Detroit did.

“I wish we could have more, but we have to do it with that number,” said Zoraida Fonalledas, national committeewoman for Puerto Rico’s Republican Party, which favors statehood. The primary “is the only time we can try to convince a candidate what we should have for the betterment of Puerto Rico. That’s very important for us that they support statehood for Puerto Rico.”

Car Pools

Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a member of the Popular Democratic Party that wants to maintain commonwealth status, has warned that the island won’t have cash to make bond payments as soon as May 1 unless it works out a plan with creditors. Puerto Rico’s economy has shrunk every year but one since 2006 and a record number of residents are fleeing to the mainland in search of jobs.

About 126,000 Republicans voted in the island’s 2012 presidential primaries, said Fonalledas, who has endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio. With only 110 polling stations this year, the party anticipates a lower turnout on the island of 3.5 million residents, she said. Local GOP party heads are organizing car pools and bus trips in areas where residents are farther away, she said. Officials anticipate lines.

“I think people will wait in line, if they have to because for anyone who goes to vote that’s the importance of this participation within the primaries of the Republican party,” Fonalledas said.

The island’s GOP primary offers 23 delegates. An alternative would have been to hold an assembly, which is less expensive, rather than a primary vote. Yet party leaders wanted to give all voters a chance to weigh in on a candidate, Fonalledas said.

Rubio plans to hold a rally in San Juan Saturday night, according to his campaign website.

Primary Season

Puerto Rico Republicans also declined to wait until June -- when the island will have its local elections -- to hold a presidential primary. Commonwealth lawmakers in 2014 changed the local election date to June from March, Garcia Velez said. That’s too late in the presidential primary season, Fonalledas said.

Both Garcia Velez and Fonalledas said Republicans will have $300,000 to spend on March 6. Yet Garcia Velez said the GOP requested $809,000 for this year’s presidential primary after spending $618,000 in 2012.

Elections on the island overall will have less money this year. The election commission received $7.2 million to conduct this year’s local primaries after requesting $10 million, Garcia Velez said. They cost $15 million in 2012, she said.

“We have this economical issue,” Garcia Velez said. “We received less and we’re working to get additional funds from the general fund before the beginning of June for the local elections.”

Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party will decide by next week whether to hold a caucus or a primary, according to Kenneth McClintock, a former Lieutenant Governor and national committeeman for Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party. Either way, the party plans to hold it on June 5, the same date as the island’s local elections, which will help limit expenses, according to McClintock.

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