ACLU Sues Puerto Rico Over Its Pandemic Voting Policies

A volunteer scans a voter’s hands before he casts his ballot in Loíza, Puerto Rico, Aug. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Dánica Coto)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CN) — Civil rights lawyers slapped the Puerto Rico Election Commission with a federal lawsuit on Thursday, claiming the U.S. territory failed to ensure people older than 60 can safely vote during the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Ahead of a general election laden with partisan furor and public fear over Covid-19 contraction, the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico filed a complaint in San Juan over an alleged lack of safety accommodations for the island’s older voters.

“The problem is the commission isn’t doing anything to fulfill its existing legal mandate to protect voters for the November election. Older people are at particularly high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. They need absentee and early voting options, but the commission is foot-dragging when it comes to adopting the necessary policies,” Mayte Bayolo-Alonso, a legislative attorney with the ACLU of Puerto Rico said in a statement.

New York-based law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP joined the ACLU in bringing the legal action on behalf of “Puerto Rico residents who are over 60 and want to vote safely, either by absentee ballot or early voting to avoid crowds.”

The civil rights advocates are urging the court to force election officials to implement policies that will allow older voters to access early and absentee voting.

They contend a spread of Covid-19 in Puerto Rico from overcrowding in polling places is likely to occur due to a “trifecta” of exceptionally high voter turnout, a limited number of polling places and certain mail-in voting restrictions. 

“Because the commission has provided voters no option that avoids exposure to COVID-19, it has effectively disenfranchised a significant number of its citizens who cannot risk exposing themselves to COVID-19,” the advocates wrote. 

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, senior citizens make up more than 20% of Puerto Rico’s population.

Belia Arlene Ocasio, 67, and Efrain Colon Damiani, 69, are among the plaintiffs in the case. According to the ACLU, both of them have a high risk of succumbing to severe illness or death if they contract Covid-19.

Still, they “will have to violate social distancing guidelines and risk their health” in order to vote in November, the advocates say.

“Neither qualifies for early voting in Puerto Rico under any of the categories authorized by the election code for the 2020 general election, and will have to vote in person on Nov. 3, absent any relief,” an ACLU press release announcing the lawsuit states. 

Thursday’s complaint follows weeks of uncertainty after the territory’s primaries in early August were marred as ballots reached only a handful of voting centers.

 The lack of ballots in a majority of Puerto Rico’s centers caused many frustrated voters to blame the elections commission. 

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises travelers not to visit Puerto Rico unless it is essential as the island reports more than 12,500 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 236 deaths resulting from the virus. 

Face masks in Puerto Rico are still mandatory and Governor Wanda Vázquez, a member of the pro-statehood Progressive New Party, announced stricter safety measures on Wednesday in order to fight the area’s recent spike in Covid-19 cases.

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