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Puerto Rico's Primary Election On Sunday Was Historic — In A Bad Way

An electoral official (right) tells a voter that ballots haven't arrived at a voting center Sunday in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
Danica Coto
An electoral official (right) tells a voter that ballots haven't arrived at a voting center Sunday in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

Undaunted by the coronavirus pandemic, voters in Puerto Rico donned face masks on Sunday and headed out to local polling places to cast votes in a closely watched gubernatorial primary election.

There was just one problem: For many voters, there weren't any ballots.

By early afternoon on the day of the primary, only a handful of polling places had received their paper ballots, NPR's Joel Rose reported Sunday.

Voters and politicians alike were infuriated, Rose said. One candidate called the situation "embarrassing."

The primary election had already been delayed once, moved from June 7 to Aug. 9, because of the pandemic. Now the ballot shortage means that someprecincts — the locations that did not have ballots available to start voting by 1:45 p.m. Sunday — will be open to cast ballots again next Sunday.

The unprecedented situation creates a legal gray area, Edgardo Román, president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press. What happens to people who showed up at a polling place with no ballots and went home, never learning that their precinct had eventually opened? It's a scenario the law never anticipated, he told the wire service.

Román told AP this was the worst "electoral experience in the history of Puerto Rico."

It's not clear why ballots were not delivered on time. Political party officials laid blame with the island's election commission. The head of the election commission pointed the finger at a printing facility, according to the Miami Herald.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board issued a statement Sunday evening saying it had fully funded the elections commission and a lack of money could not be to blame.

"The State Elections Commission has sufficient money, andit has more than enough staffto perform the one task it is charged with," the oversight board said in its statement, calling the ballot debacle "unacceptable" and the result of "inefficient organization."

It's the latest example of chaos at U.S. polling placesduring summer primaries as the pandemic has created new headaches for election officials. Concerns about the virus have caused some election workers to stay home, while those who remain face rescheduled elections, new ad hoc social-distancing policies, and, in some cases, the project of massively scaling up their mail-in voting system. (In Puerto Rico, as in ahandful of states, absentee voting is still only offered to those with an excuse for why they cannot vote in person, which is why voters there had little choice but to go to the polls in person.)

Meanwhile, as election officials grapple with the challenges of avoiding disease transmission on voting dayand maintaining election security, President Trump has raised inaccurate and unsupported objections tomail-in voting and floated the prospect of delaying the U.S. presidential election, which he does not have the authority to do.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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