Commonwealth Supreme Court agrees to hear Bhatia & Pierluisi petitions to count ballots

By Pedro Correa Henry and The Star Staff

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has agreed to hear petitions from New Progressive Party gubernatorial hopeful Pedro Pierluisi and Popular Democratic Party (PDP) gubernatorial hopeful Eduardo Bhatia demanding that the State Elections Commission (SEC) count the ballots cast Sunday before voting in the party primaries was suspended due to a lack of ballots.

The resolution gives the SEC and the electoral commissioners until 2 p.m. today to provide a response to the lawsuits.

The suits originally began in San Juan Superior Court, where Judge Anthony Cuevas Ramos had begun a hearing to hear the parties and in which he said he had consolidated the cases. He could not continue the hearings because Pierluisi had anticipated that he was going to file a petition to have the case remanded to the Supreme Court.

Late in the afternoon, Isabela Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri, who is also running for governor in the PDP primary, sought an order in Superior Court requiring the SEC to resume the primary within the next 72 hours because the law says the primary has to be held as a single-day event. It was not immediately known if the Supreme Court would take over the case.

The SEC and the presidents of the main political parties on Sunday had agreed to suspend the primaries for voting centers that had not received ballots by early afternoon Sunday. Those units were expected to conduct voting next Sunday.

However, earlier in the day, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced said she was willing to issue an executive order to hold the primary before Sunday. The PDP’s governing board also appeared to be in agreement.

Regarding a Supreme Court decision, justices said that after examining the urgent appeal filed for intrajurisdictional certification, they determined it was best to stop the proceedings before the Superior Court.

“It is good news that the Supreme Court has accepted our appeal to give legal certainty to what happened,” Pierluisi said in a written statement. “What will give the people peace of mind is the certainty that the votes cast yesterday [Sunday] will be officially counted and the results of all the contests that have already ended are published.”

Pierluisi’s lawyers slammed the agreement between the political party presidents and the SEC.

“The suspension or paralysis of the count and transmission of the results of the electoral process, without authority to do so, and in prejudice [against] the voters, constitutes an illegal and undemocratic act whose effects this honorable court is obliged to avoid without any delay,” read the document drafted by attorneys Vanessa Santo Domingo Cruz and Walter S. Pierluisi González.

Associate Justice Luis Estrella Martínez said that while he was satisfied with the certification issued by the Supreme Court, he regretted that the case did not include other aspects beyond the vote count.

“That is, it does not contest the date of the continuation of the primaries and other extremes of the SEC agreements,” Estrella Martínez said.

He noted that the suits should be consolidated with the one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Carmen Damaris Quiñones, who alleged her voting rights were violated.

“This way we address all the aspects of the controversies surrounding these primaries and provide an adequate, complete and timely remedy,” he said.

Estrella Martínez added that the court should also be given the chance to discuss the leak of electoral results and “stop the illicit practice of leaking electoral results in the middle of a voting process, diluting the secrecy of the vote and the equal weight that the voters should have.”

Justice Ángel Colón Pérez said that while he agreed with the ruling, he would have ordered the immediate seizure of all the electoral briefcases in the SEC’s possession that contain the primary ballots.

Bhatia, meanwhile, complained about the leak of polling results online even though the primary process has not finished. The leaked results, most of which gave a victory to Delgado Altieri, could influence voters into casting ballots for the Isabela mayor.

“I want to know the truth. I don’t trust the SEC. I don’t trust that the numbers released yesterday will be the same ones next Sunday. I can’t trust a commission that can’t offer the minimal guarantee to have ballots printed. [Someone] who can’t deal with what is basic certainly can’t deal with what’s more complex,” Bhatia said at a news conference earlier in the day. “My petition is the following: finish the primary elections as soon as possible, [and] that all votes from yesterday [Sunday] are taken into account, to respect the 35 percent of voters who already cast their vote. We, and our legal team, will respect that.”

With regard to the leaked ballot numbers from Sunday’s electoral event, Bhatia said it was a “modality” that he wants to get rid of as it is used as a “continuous method to speak to Puerto Rico with lies.”

“It’s a practice to go running out to tell who’s winning and losing in this primary [election] … this constant method of resorting to media manipulation, of resorting to manipulating citizens, which is far from the best traditions of the PDP, and far from what should be the ethical principles and moral values that should guide every Puerto Rican,” he said. “There are people who have dedicated the last 15 hours to sending false numbers, to divert attention, to create an impression, for that matter, there are people who are already awarding the primary elections. How is that possible when almost 70 percent of voters were unable to cast their vote?”

While his petition was being compared to the one Pierluisi filed, Bhatia said that both determinations are legal strategies that could have similarities, but his objective was for his legal team to reach the Puerto Rico Supreme Court as it did in order to have their request addressed as soon as possible.

“We’re in the middle of primary elections; it’s not [just] a primary event that was stopped,” Bhatia said. “What we wish for is to finish it soon as long as we have the guarantees from the SEC that this mess will not happen ever again.”

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