Lack of Balance at the Elections Commission Sticks with No Changes in the Electoral Code

Since the new law came into effect, the CEE’s president practices the highest executive and administrative authority at the agency.

May 7, 2024

Photo by Tammy Olivencia | House of Representatives

Electoral commissioners José F. Córdova Iturregui (alternate) and Lillian Aponte Dones (both from the MVC), Nelson Rosario Rodríguez (PD) and Roberto Iván Aponte Berríos (PIP) explain that they are excluded from the discussion of the CEE’s administrative matters.

With no changes made to the Electoral Code (Act 58-2020) during this four-year term, the State Elections Commission (CEE, in Spanish) works as another government agency in which the presidency, currently controlled by the governing Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party) makes all budget decisions and appoints administrative office directors.

With the 2024 electoral process underway, the electoral commissioners of the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party), the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party), Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens Victory Movement) and the Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project) told the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) — in separate interviews — that they don´t have participation in the CEE’s daily administrative operations, different from what happened in the past.

The Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) commissioners added that, when the new Electoral Code went into effect during this four-year term, they  were left out of the recruitment process and budget allocations, except for those of their own offices. They do intervene, and only are offered briefings on electoral matters, they said.

“In the final balance, the Presidency runs everything and what the Commission does as a whole is receive information and approve or reject a resolution on such and such a project in which the Presidency already worked for a while with the different administrative offices that are directed by PNP officials,” said the PIP’s electoral commissioner, Roberto Iván Aponte Berríos. The commissioners can, at the end of the process, give their opinion on some aspects and make some changes, but that participation is minimal, he added.

The alternate president of the CEE, Jessika Padilla Rivera, acknowledged the broad powers that the Electoral Code grants to the figure of the President of the CEE. And that, although the commissioners can only intervene in electoral matters, she assured that her practice has been to listen to their recommendations.

Jessika Padilla Rivera, alternate president of the CEE, said the Electoral Code establishes that electoral commissioners cannot intervene in administrative matters.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“Although the Electoral Code grants the figure of the President absolute power as the highest executive and administrative authority of the Commission, the truth is that every recommendation is heard and analyzed carefully and impartially so that the determinations are correct based on the needs and official information that is part of the evaluation of each issue,” said Rivera Padilla.

Meanwhile, the PNP’s electoral commissioner, Vanessa Santo Domingo Cruz, said the electoral commissioners do not have a say in the CEE’s administrative affairs, “so that the agency can be more agile.”

Limited Participation

The PPD’s electoral commissioner, Karla Angleró González, said when she was alternate commissioner from 2017 to 2019 “the CEE’s budget was approved by the commissioners.” In this new term as commissioner, which she started in June 2023, she was only asked for a budget proposal for the PPD’s office and its primaries, she said.

Karla Angleró González, electoral commissioner of the PPD.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The current bidding regulations were approved exclusively by the then president of the CEE, Francisco Rosado Colomer, said the electoral commissioner of the Citizens Victory Movement (MVC, in Spanish), Lillian Aponte Dones. Prior to the 2020 Electoral Code, this regulation had to be evaluated and approved by the full Commission.

The participation of opposition parties in the CEE bid processes is also very limited.

“They give us the briefings and the specifications are approved by  the Commission, prior to the bid, but I don’t have a representative on the [Bid] Board,” said Angleró González, who, like the PNP, has a classification of principal party within the CEE. This classification was established in the new Electoral Code to refer to political parties that get 25% or more of full votes in the general elections.

This classification implies that these parties constitute the institutional balance where it applies within the CEE, and that their commissioners will be considered as proprietary electoral commissioners with the right to speak and vote in the CEE’s plenary session.

Only the PNP and PPD are considered major parties. However, the PIP, the MVC and the PD managed to remain in the CEE plenary session alongside the PPD and PNP because, in 2021, the Court determined that 25% was not a requirement when these parties registered. However, this decision only applies during this four-year period. Once the November general elections are over, only a minimum of two and up to a maximum of three of those parties that get 25% or more of full votes will be part of the Commission’s plenary session.

Likewise, the MVC commissioner said the information that the commissioners get from the CEE’s presidency is so scant that she had to make a request for information to the Presidency to learn about certain budget items, including the federal funds that the CEE receives, and the use which they are given.

“The CEE is called the Commission because it’s supposed to be run by commissioners, and it had a president who was basically a chief executive. The new Electoral Code changes the concept and turns the CEE into a [regular government] agency run by the president,” said a CPI source, who preferred to remain anonymous because of her job.

The CEE’s former vice president for the PIP, Carlos Avilés, agreed that the new structure undermines the balance in the decision making process, causing them to fall to a single party. He said the PIP once had administrative office directors, but “that disappeared. There’s a party in charge that practically has all the responsibility.”

For his part, the PPD’s former electoral commissioner, Guillermo San Antonio Acha attributed the changes in the CEE’s structure to public perception of “excessive spending” of the CEE operation in non-electoral years. The Puerto Rico government bankruptcy led to the Fiscal Control Board’s imposition of austerity measures at the CEE, he said.

San Antonio Acha believes the PNP used the issue of spending cuts  as an excuse to eliminate the vice presidencies of each party, the political balance in the CEE offices, and change the position of president as an administrator who would oversee everything. To try to give the appearance of independent judgment, the Electoral Law approved in 2020 stated that the president would have to come from the judiciary, trying to show that they would not benefit one party over another. But in Puerto Rico, judges are appointed by the parties in power.

“They name a President at the Commission under the assumption that it’s a judge and that   one party is not going to be in control,” he said.

San Antonio Acha said the goal is to give the impression of impartiality with the appointment of an acting judge in the presidency, but “we all know that’s a fallacy, which is how the PNP took control of the CEE, which it couldn’t have done under the former  structure.”

Furthermore, the Electoral Code says that the president will only intervene when there is no unanimity among the electoral commissioners, and in practice, if the PNP commissioner objects, the decision goes for a resolution to the president who is appointed by that party, the former PPD commissioner said.

In the past, the Commission — composed of the president and an electoral commissioner from each political party — ran the CEE and made electoral decisions and the president was assisted by three vice-presidents. It was a system of checks and balances that operated from distrust, explained Samuel Quiñones García, researcher, and former president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association’s Electoral Law Commission.

Puerto Rico had an Electoral Tribunal between 1974 and 1977 composed of a president and two associate members appointed by the Governor in consultation with former Puerto Rico Supreme Court judges, who in turn would recommend in a vote by two thirds of its members, established the Electoral Code of 1974. The Senate and the House of Representatives had to confirm these members.
Screenshot from Nuevo Avance Ilustrado magazine (1975) | Colección Puertorriqueña, Universidad de Puerto Rico

Quiñones García believes that prior to the approval of the current Electoral Code, the CEE acknowledged the presence and participation of each registered party in its electoral and administrative operations with the alternation of said parties in the direction of the administrative offices, which allowed greater oversight among all, a more democratic institution and prevented the concentration of the decision-making power in a single party.

“It’s necessary for the political parties to sit around a single table to rebuild the State Election Commission. It’s also essential to return to a State Election Commission where all political parties are duly represented in the essential electoral matters. That balance system inspired by distrust represented the perfect guarantee, for more than 30 years, of an institution truly representative of the public interest,” said Gerardo Cruz, the PPD’s alternate electoral commissioner.

The electoral commissioners of the minority parties told the CPI that, during Rosado Colomer’s presidency (from September 2020 to July 2023), in most of the issues in which there was no unanimous agreement, the former President voted according to the position of the PNP electoral commissioner.

“In Rosado Colomer’s case, I think it was almost 100% [voting in favor of the PNP commissioner’s position]. It’s like a funnel that channels everything to the hands of the PNP,” said the PIP electoral commissioner.

Meanwhile, the PD’s electoral commissioner, Nelson Rosario Rodríguez, agreed that Rosado Colomer ruled in favor of the PNP’s position, but said “Jessika [Padilla, current alternate President of the CEE] has ruled against Vanessa Santo Domingo Cruz, the PNP’s electoral commissioner, in my favor and in everyone’s favor.”

Vanessa Santo Domingo Cruz, the PNP’s electoral commissioner.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

According to the MVC electoral commissioner, between October 2020 and January 2022, there were 61 divided votes in the CEE plenary session, of which 92% were resolved in favor of the PNP by the then President Rosado Colomer.

“On 23 occasions the PNP was the only one to vote for or against an issue [discussed]. In 88% of those [votes 1 to 4], Rosado Colomer resolved in favor of what the PNP proposed,” he added.

“The alternate president doesn’t distance herself much from her counterpart, former judge Rosado Colomer. Although at times she seems to offer an openness to dialogue, the reality is that in specific and controversial matters, she doesn’t represent the public interest or guarantee access for voters to democratic processes,” said the MVC electoral commissioner.

An example of Rosado Colomer’s determinations was the controversy over the collection of endorsements from party candidates that use an alternative method and not primaries.

In this case, the MVC and the PD alleged in court that Rosado Colomer unilaterally amended the Regulations for the Filing of Candidacies to provide that candidates selected through an alternative method would not have to comply with the submission of endorsement petitions “as long as they are chosen and their file, with the required documents, is filed by their political party as the sole candidate in the Commission on or before 12 p.m. on December 30, 2023.”

For the bylaw to be firm and final, that amendment should have been discussed and approved by the commissioners, but that did not happen, said the PD’s electoral commissioner. The Superior Court upheld the validity of the regulation and in its ruling held that the electoral commissioners had a specific period to question it and did not do so. Last week the Court of Appeals revoked this ruling due to the plaintiffs’ lack of legal standing. The plaintiffs filed an appeal for review in the Supreme Court on Thursday.


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