Deputy House speaker: ‘Our electoral system must be rethought’

Several delegations unite to evaluate electoral code reform bills in public hearings

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Rep. José “Conny” Varela, the deputy speaker of the island House of Representatives, announced Sunday that the five delegations in the Legislature will commence public hearings Thursday on electoral reform bills that have been filed “in order to quickly address the serious errors that occurred in past elections following the imposition of an Electoral Code that did not have consensus.”

During a press conference held in the Armando “Mandín” Rodríguez Press Room at the Capitol, the Constitutional and Electoral Amendments Committee chairman said the purpose of the public hearings was “to bring back trust, credibility and respect to the State Elections Commission [SEC]” by calling on political and civic organizations to air their concerns regarding the Electoral Code signed into law last June by then-Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced.

Between the challenges during the primary elections, which began on Aug. 9 and were delayed to Aug. 16 due to logistics and distribution issues, and later in the Nov. 3 general elections, regarding which the Inspector General’s Office pointed out on Dec. 30 irregularities in the early voting process as more voter ballots than authorized requests were registered, Varela said “our electoral system must be rethought, from the [Electoral Code] law to the SEC’s structure.”

“It is time to carry out a serious exercise in which all the parties sit down to look for points of convergence and to reach consensus in order to restore credibility to the electoral processes,” the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) lawmaker said as he also pointed out that the general elections have not yet come to a conclusion since contests such as the San Juan and Guánica mayoral races are being challenged in court.

Among the bills to be under evaluation is House Bill (HB) 4, authored by House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández Montañez and the PDP delegation, which proposes to repeal Law 58-2020, also known as the 2020 Electoral Code of Puerto Rico; HB 114, authored by Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón, Citizen Victory Movement (CVM) Reps. Mariana Nogales Molinelli and José Bernardo Márquez Reyes, and Dignity Project (DP) Rep. Lisie Janet Burgos Muñiz, which proposes to establish amendments to the current law.

In addition, the Legislature will also evaluate HR 22, which orders investigations into the anomalies that occurred in the Aug. 9 primaries and the Nov. 3 general elections.

“We must consider every bill that seeks more protection of voting rights,” Varela said. “What I will guarantee is that I will provide the proper legislative process for such an important issue, something that did not take place when the current [Electoral] Code was passed.”

Márquez Lebrón, meanwhile, said “the PIP has warned since day one, since 2019,” about the upcoming challenges that the SEC faces due to a code “that had the consequence of leading SEC Chairman [Francisco Rosado Colomer] to an [take an] undemocratic action that expelled three political parties from the Commission.”

Márquez Lebrón was referring to the resolution filed by Rosado Colomer on Jan. 5 that established that only political parties that obtained 25% or more intact votes would remain as “proprietary electoral commissioners” and which went into effect last Friday, leaving the PIP, CVM, and DP without an electoral franchise.

Likewise, the PIP legislator said, the current moment is significant because it is “truly showing the participation of the diverse political sectors,” to which he added that it represents a “necessary political balance.”

“I am in favor of dealing with the electoral reform issue, of dealing with it according to a proper procedure to deliver an electoral reform that has consensus,” Márquez Lebrón said. “The worst events have led different sectors to reach a consensus.”

Meanwhile, Burgos Muñiz said that as early as 1984, the island Supreme Court ruled that “once an electoral franchise is recognized and conferred, an unequal treatment in terms of representation in the different bodies created by the Electoral Law and in terms of government economic aid cannot be validly sustained.”

The DP legislator and spokesperson said further that even though it was important for the House to address HB 4, it didn’t mean that HB 114 is of lesser importance, given that representatives have agreed to take into consideration bills co-sponsored by leaders from different political organizations.

“Right now, the [State Elections] Commission and its two proprietary parties [the PDP and the New Progressive Party] are making decisions that affect our parties, and, as expected, every constituent,” Burgos Muñiz said. “A responsible evaluation of HB 4 could take the entire four-year term, [lest that legislation] result in undermining the right of parties to have representation in the SEC.”

Márquez Reyes, one of the two CVM co-authors of HB 114, said the committee that has been created to address electoral matters is important because “both the constitutional and electoral systems do not reflect the political preferences in this moment of history.”

“That reinforcement of the democratic system should not be subject to political calculations,” he said. “Increasing voter participation and ensuring adequate representation of electoral trends should be everyone’s commitment,” adding that either an amended or new Electoral Code should at least include runoff and automatic voting registry.

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