Yesterday Puerto Ricans delivered a resounding defeat to Governor Fortuño’s constitutional amendment referendum by a margin of 54% to 45% on both measures, with a 35% voter turnout.
Voters were asked to approve two amendments to Puerto Rico’s constitution: (1) Allow for judges to deny bail in case of first degree murder and four additional cases of murder; and (2) shrink the legislature from 78 legislators to 56. Polls had placed the “YES” vote in nearly double digit leads. On the YES camp, was the Governor and the Statehood party (New Progressive Party, or PNP in Spanish) and a limited number of candidates from the Commonwealth Party (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD in Spanish), among them, the candidate for governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla.
The NO camp was composed most of the PPD, including former governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Puerto Rico State Bar Association, the leading newspaper on the Island (El Nuevo Día), unions, community leaders and the four minority political parties: Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico (PPPR), United Sovereign Movement (MUS), and the Workers Party (PPPT).
The YES camp launched a media blitz on radio and television, but only a month prior to the referendum, while the NO camp was waging a strong campaign on social media, YouTube and ultimately, radio. Governor Fortuño argued that the amendments would allow for a strong tool against crime (bail reform) and a more efficient (and cheaper) legislature, while his opponent, Garcia Padilla, supported the amendments but hardly campaign for them.
Former governor Acevedo Vila however did not follow his party’s candidate for the top office and became one of the most vocal opponents of both measures. By repeating a legally incorrect message regarding bail reform (alleging that denying bail would entail eliminating the presumption of innocence), among other arguments, the opposition was able to defeat the amendments at the polls by nearly 10 points.
Many saw the referendum as a precursor of things to come in November, when voters will be faced with Island-wide elections and a referendum on the ever-controversial status issue. That said, the referendum had its share of winners and losers, and its effects on November remain to be seen.
Anibal Acevedo Vila: Acevedo Vila is better known for being indicted on 24 federal charges in 2008. He was ultimately acquitted of several charges, with several others being dismissed by the Court on other legal grounds. Acevedo Vila was the lead organizer of the PPD in the 1998 status plebiscite, resulting in a victory for “None of the above”, and has been an open question following his stunning 2008 loss against Governor Fortuño. Some say that following his acquittal; Acevedo Vila is gearing for a 2016 run if his party loses the governorship race. Given how vocal he was in Sunday’s referendum, particularly since Garcia Padilla’s choice (YES) was defeated at the polls, Acevedo Vila may begin to appear as a force to be reckoned with in his party.
Minority Parties: Puerto Rico has six parties running for office this year: the two main parties (PNP and PPD), the Independence Party (PIP) and three new parties (MUS, PPPT and PPPR). Although none of the minority parties are expected to garner anything above a 5% vote in the general election, their participation in the referendum has given them publicity and additional recognition. While it remains to be seen if Sundays vote translates to actual votes in November, they definitely came out victorious if even for a day.
Social Media: The NO camp used social media in what can only be described as a masterful way. With viral videos and slogans running around YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the NO camp was able to create a larger presence than the donation-rich YES campaign. Puerto Ricans are heavily connected to social media sites, and its effect in future elections will only increase.
PNP: The Statehood party heavily invested in Sunday’s referendum, with the entire party towing the same line on both amendments. The vote was an opportunity to measure the PNP’s get-out-the-vote machine for November in a political environment that does not favor the incumbent. Sunday’s vote emboldens the opposition while reminding the PNP that a victory in November will not come easy. The vote also delivers Governor Fortuño a stinging defeat prior to the GOP convention (where he will speak) and the November plebiscite on status.
Alejandro Garcia Padilla: The Senator (and candidate for governor) voted against the laws enabling the referendum, to then suddenly supporting the amendments once they were enacted. Garcia Padilla expressed that his party was free to vote their conscience although he would be bucking his party’s trend and joining forces with his rival in supporting the amendments. Many saw his actions as opportunistic at best, and cowardly at worst. With the stunning defeat of the amendments, Garcia Padilla was effectively over-shadowed by Acevedo Vila as the driving force within his own party.
Bail Reform: This was the second attempt at bail reform in 20 years, and the second time it fails at the polls. At a time where Puerto Rico has a record crime homicide rate, the environment was ripe to pass bail reform. However, the PNP’s failure to deliver a lengthier campaign for bail reform, coupled with the fact that no statistical evidence was ever presented to support the notion that bail reform would reduce crime, voters delivered a shocking defeat to the prospect of bail reform. No serious leader should consider putting this up to a vote for at least the next 20 years, if at all.