At-Large Legislative Contests in the 2020 Puerto Rico General Election

While most seats in both houses of the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico are chosen by plurality (single-seat districts in the House, two-seat districts in the Senate), there are 11 seats in each body – out of a total of 27 in the Senate and 51 in the House of Representatives – that are filled on an at-large basis, by Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV). The 2020 election in the U.S. Commonwealth was notable not only for the fact that candidates from five parties secured at-large representation (along with a sitting independent senator), but also for the unexpectedly poor showing of the largest opposition party, the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the at-large legislative races.

To be certain, the outcome of the election was nothing short of a political earthquake, with both the ruling, pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and PPD polling their worst results ever: 33.24% and 31.75% of the valid votes for governor, for a combined share of 64.99%. Meanwhile, the island’s perennial third party, the left-wing Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) shot up from 2.13% in 2016 to 13.58%, but the new Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC) – ideologically diverse but broadly left-liberal – outdid PIP with 13.95%. Another new party, the Christian-conservative Project Dignity (PD) won 6.80%.

Despite their respective setbacks, the two major parties continued to monopolize between themselves all legislative district seats (MVC narrowly lost a House race in San Juan to PNP), with PPD securing a majority of these in both houses despite polling fewer votes than PNP, due to latter’s concentration of votes in the San Juan metropolitan area. So why did PPD fail to do as well in the at-large legislative races? The answer lies in the workings of the at-large representation system in Puerto Rico, known in Spanish as representación por acumulación.

Specifically, since politics in Puerto Rico evolved into a two-party system in 1968, following 28 years of PPD dominance, the two major parties have nominated six at-large candidates each for both the Senate and the House of Representatives in every election (from 1952 to 1968 PPD nominated seven at-large candidates to each legislative body). In order to guarantee each candidate has an equal chance of being elected, parties vary the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot in each of the island’s electoral districts – precintos in Spanish – 110 in total since 2012 (to be increased to 114 in 2024); parties assign candidates a set of electoral districts known as a legislative bloc – bloque legislativo in Spanish – in which they are placed at the top of their respective party lists, and as such automatically receive straight votes cast for their party, which have constituted the majority of ballots in every election; party ticket votes with votes cast for other at-large candidates from the same party are considered split votes. (See sample ballot.)

From 1972 to 2012, PNP and PPD elected four to six at-large candidates each in both the Senate and the House. Nonetheless, over the years an increasing number of voters cast either split ballots or bypassed party tickets altogether and voted for candidates only – in Spanish voto por candidatura – and PIP, which nominated single at-large candidates for each body from 1984 onward, was able to tap into that vote to secure seats for its at-large candidates in nearly every election during that period (the party won no at-large seats in 2008 and only a Senate at-large mandate in 2012). Even so, as recently as the 2012 election 81.27% of valid legislative ballots were straight votes, and the overall impact of split/candidacy votes was comparatively limited.

However, in 2016 split/candidacy voting soared from 18.73% to 35.62% of the legislative ballot valid vote, and the main beneficiary was José Vargas-Vidot, who became Puerto Rico’s first-ever independent candidate to win a legislative seat, securing a Senate at-large mandate and topping the poll as well. In fact, his vote total was made up entirely of split/candidacy ballots, since no provision is made to cast a straight vote for an independent candidate, and his victory reduced PPD to three at-large Senate seats (with PIP winning one and PNP the remaining six).

Although PNP returned to power in the 2016 election, the party polled its worst result up to that point in the gubernatorial election, and PPD its second-worst, with the major parties’ combined share of valid votes declining from 95.56% in 2012 to 80.67%. Meanwhile, independent candidate Alexandra Lúgaro won a respectable 11.13% of the vote, and went on to found MVC in 2019. By then, the marked decline of PPD in 2016, along with the emergence of Lúgaro’s new party and the success of the Vargas Vidot independent candidacy called into question the wisdom of nominating six at-large candidates in 2020, when five might have a better chance of securing election. To that end, a proposal was made to the party leadership, which however was rejected after a former but still highly influential party leader spoke against it, insisting that “too much was in play,” that nominating five at-large candidates instead of six could be perceived as an admission of weakness, and prevent the party from winning an overall majority in either or both houses of the Legislative Assembly.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note I collaborated in the proposal calling for the nomination of five PPD at-large candidates, and was present at the party leadership meeting in which it was discussed and turned down.)

As it was, MVC anticipated it would fare at least as well as Lúgaro did in her independent gubernatorial run in 2016, and nominated two at-large candidates for both legislative bodies, using Lúgaro’s 2016 vote as the basis for the corresponding legislative blocs. Meanwhile, PNP and PPD ran their usual six-candidate slates for both the Senate and the House, PIP and PD nominated single candidates for both houses, and Sen. Vargas-Vidot ran for re-election. However, although every MVC, PIP and PD at-large candidate as well as Sen. Vargas-Vidot was successful in the 2020 election, PNP only won four at-large seats in the Senate and five in the House, while PPD won just two at-large seats in both houses, as detailed in the following table (full results are available on my Elections in Puerto Rico website):

House Senate
Party % Seats % Seats
PNP 33.84 5 33.37 4
PPD 36.03 2 31.27 2
PIP 10.56 1 11.29 1
MVC 12.83 2 10.99 2
PD 6.73 1 7.33 1
Ind. 5.76 1

In both the Senate and House at-large races, the combined percentages obtained by all six PPD candidates – 31.27% in the Senate and 36.03% in the House suggested that while securing six of eleven seats might not have been a realistic goal, the party should have done better than winning just two seats (18.18%) in each case. However, an additional complication was that PPD candidates fared quite unevenly, although it should be noted these disparities weren’t due to the makeup of the PPD legislative blocs; instead, the large number of split/candidacy votes – which increased to 40.15% of all valid legislative ballots in 2020 – made the legislative bloc arrangements far less meaningful, as many voters backed candidates who weren’t assigned the top spot in their electoral districts. The uneven performance of PPD at-large candidates on account of split/candidacy votes was particularly evident in the House of Representatives, as shown in the following table:

Candidate Straight Split/Cand. Total
Héctor Ferrer 48,750 93,100 141,850
Jesús Manuel Ortiz-González 52,591 19,359 71,950
Enid Monge 52,031 6,474 58,505
Keyliz Méndez-Torres 48,416 8,827 57,243
Yaramary Torres 48,348 6,774 55,122
Gabriel López-Arrieta 45,817 4,838 50,655

In fact, Ferrer polled 73,213 votes outside his assigned legislative bloc – a figure which by itself exceeded the vote totals of the remaining five PPD House at-large candidates.

Among PPD Senate at-large candidates, the split/candidacy vote total disparities weren’t as marked, but even then the two winning candidates had the largest totals on that column:

Candidate Straight Split/Cand. Total
Juan Zaragoza-Gómez 52,591 21,218 73,809
José Luis Dalmau-Santiago 52,031 19,865 71,896
Aníbal José (Jossie) Torres 45,817 15,385 61,202
Brenda López-De-Arrarás 48,348 11,613 59,961
Ada Álvarez-Conde 48,750 8,470 57,220
Luis Vega-Ramos 48,416 6,234 54,650

Another factor at play is that many voters don’t understand the workings of SNTV, and for one reason or another cast their votes under the incorrect assumption they can vote for up to six candidates in each legislative body – as if it were a Multiple Non-Transferable Vote (MNTV) election – instead of only one. Ballot design might be at play, as at-large races are the only instance in which the number of nominations doesn’t go hand in hand with the maximum number of votes a voter may cast, but the fact is that both PNP and PPD actually use MNTV in their internal party primaries to choose at-large nominees, and many voters – sometimes including even seasoned political analysts – mistakenly assume that system is also in place for general elections, ballot instructions to the contrary notwithstanding.

The introduction in 2016 of vote counting machines providing detailed overvote and undervote statistics highlighted the confusion surrounding the way in which at-large legislators are chosen. Specifically, although overvoting in at-large legislative races, while somewhat reduced in 2020 (due to the efforts of how-to-vote campaigns from civic groups), is still significantly higher than in district races chosen by plurality voting, where it remains negligible (even though the vote counting machines are supposed to warn the voter about overvoting and undervoting). Besides overvoting, some PNP or PPD voters back third-party or independent at-large candidates under the assumption they are giving just one of six votes to such candidates, with the remaining five votes they think they have (but really don’t) going to the rest of their preferred party slate, when in fact they are giving their sole vote to a candidate outside their party.

Another issue in at-large legislative races is the so-called invasion of electoral districts, in which major party at-large candidates actively campaign for votes in electoral districts that don’t belong to their assigned legislative bloc, fully aware they are taking away votes from fellow party candidates. Suffice it to say this is a very sensitive matter, and there’s no information to confirm whether or not it took place in 2020.

It should also be noted that the 2020 general election in Puerto Rico was carried out under a new electoral law imposed unilaterally by PNP just months before the election, over the objections of opposition parties. One of the more controversial provisions of the law granted the ruling party near-absolute control of the Elections Commission, which had been run on a power-sharing basis among registered parties since a major reform in 1983 (following the disastrous 1980 election, in which the Elections Commission had been under PNP’s full control as well). While there were few issues with in-person polling, either election day or advanced, the tally of the bulk of advance/absentee votes in special polling station 77, mainly domicile and mail-in votes, accounting for about one-eight of all ballots, proved to be extremely problematic from the beginning, not least because its ten-fold expansion under the new electoral law overwhelmed the agency. To this day the exact number of voters requesting advance ballots in 2020 remains unknown, the results of polling station 77 are riddled with discrepancies – often quite significant – in every electoral district, and some believe the cited issues might have adversely affected PPD in the at-large contests. However, PNP leaders insist there is nothing wrong with the electoral law, and to date have resisted attempts to reform it ahead of the 2024 general election.

At any rate, the decision by PPD leaders to nominate six at-large candidates in 2020 for both houses proved to be a monumental blunder, which had the effect of exposing the very weakness that party leaders desperately wanted to conceal; in practical terms it resulted in a Senate in which no party had overall control of a legislative body for the first time since 1940; PPD won a plurality of Senate seats and an overall majority of one in the House.

But would PPD have been better off by nominating five at-large candidates instead of six? According to a Senate-only, post-election simulation I ran with five candidates, the answer is affirmative: at least four candidates, and possibly all five would have been elected. Even so, it’s by no means certain PPD will nominate in 2024 five at-large candidates instead of six, not least because many party leaders remain in denial about the major changes in voting trends that took place in 2016 and 2020, insisting they are nothing more than a transient phenomenon. That said, it’s worth remembering that in Spain it took several years for PP and (to a lesser degree) PSOE leaders to finally come to terms with a similar shift away from two-party dominance after 2015.

Finally, from time to time some PNP and PPD leaders have called for the elimination of at-large legislative seats, thus resulting in a Legislative Assembly elected in its entirety by plurality in districts. However, such calls appear to be motivated by a desire to get rid of independent and third-party legislators; that such a move could backfire in future elections in which either PNP or PPD, or both might no longer be major parties appears not to have been considered at all. And while leaders of both parties might scoff at such prospects in the here and now, they cannot be ruled out altogether in the long run, all the more so since as a result of their steady decline the two major parties appear to be increasingly dependent on the support of old voters, much like CDU/CSU and SPD in Germany’s 2021 Bundestag election. In fact, in the 2020 general election PNP and PPD won between themselves 87.71% of the advance/absentee vote in the gubernatorial race, 85% of which came from voters aged 60 or older; but among the younger election day voters they polled just 60.68% between themselves. All the same, doing away with the at-large legislative seats would require amending the Constitution of Puerto Rico, and for the time being it does not appear such an amendment – which would have to be approved by voters in a binding referendum – will be forthcoming.

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