Study: Political tradition at stake during Puerto Rico’s general elections
As Puerto Ricans exercise their right to vote in tomorrow’s general elections, many eyes will be fixed on how the chain of events that have hit the island since the last cycle — including the hurricanes, political crises and the failed primaries, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic — will affect the so-called political tradition.
A study by data analytics firm Abexus Analytics concluded that Puerto Rico’s voting population has evolved to the point that whoever is elected should expect greater challenges during their four-year mandate given the diversity of political interests that have arisen since the 2016 elections.
“The political spectrum — through the arrival of new political parties — has experienced the greatest and fastest change since the island’s initial democratic experiments during the first half of the 20th century,” the study states.
“Surprisingly, the traditional political cleavages are somewhat blurred, which allows for a greater number of swing voters, undecided or new avenues of participation for those that feel disenfranchised,” it stated.
Puerto Rico’s general elections will lay out a choice of six candidates for governor representing traditional and newer movements: The Popular Democratic Party, the New Progressive Party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the Citizens Victory Movement (“Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana”), the Dignity Project (“Proyecto Dignidad”), and an independent candidate.
Saying that 2020 can be classified as “an outlier,” Abexus predicts that tomorrow’s elections have “the potential to be historic, a surprising statement given that 2016 was a historic election itself. [It was] the first time since 1968 that a party won the election with such a low percentage of the electorate.”
As part of its analysis, the firm took it upon itself to take a closer look at the trends and patterns embedded in previous election cycles.
“Likewise, we decided to look at some socioeconomic variables of the island’s population after 2016 as to anticipate some of the potential outcomes of [tomorrow’s] elections,” the firm said.
What is the true participation rate?
For starters, Abexus looked at the pool of eligible voters, which “has experienced a significant transformation in the last two decades. Eligible voters, particularly those between 18 and 54 years of age, have significantly and consistently declined since 2000.” That segment dropped from 70.6% of all voters in 2000 to 58.5% in 2016.
The expectation from that segment of the voting population is not so clear for tomorrow’s elections. This, because Abexus found the reduction is not necessarily tied to the significant outmigration that Puerto Rico has experienced in recent years, losing 213,000 residents between 2016 and 2019.
“Between 2000 and 2016, Puerto Rico residents between the ages of 18 and 54 declined by 22.1%, while the reduction in [that group] that voted was reported at 36.6%. Meaning a much steeper decline in voters than in population,” the firm noted.
“At the same time, those 55 and older that voted increased by 11.4% between 2000-2016. However, given the demographic trends of an aging population, Island residents that are 55 or older increased by 43.1%. Given that these growths are not proportional, other factors must be at play and that are also turning the potential electorate away from the ballot box,” the firm concluded.
While it is tough to forecast what the participation rate of that age group will be in tomorrow’s elections — “because it is plagued with too many unknowns” — the push by so-called “influencers” and political party figures could get that group out to vote.
“Yet, such potential surge could be offset by those voters which will be persuaded to relinquish their vote given the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the firm stated.
However, to determine whether the push from the 18-to-54 crowd was an isolated incident, Abexus looked at the number of people who voted in the 2016 elections and divided it by the number of eligible voters, based on Census numbers and data from the State Elections Commission.
“Using this data, we can see that Puerto Rico’s voter participation rate went from 74.4% in 2000 to 58.9% in 2016. The main drop occurring between 2012 and 2016, when it fell by almost 8.5 percentage points. What’s most troubling about this fact is that such reduction occurred before Hurricane María (2017) which accelerated the island’s outmigration,” Abexus said.
“What’s most troubling about this fact is that such reduction occurred before Hurricane María (2017) which accelerated the island’s outmigration. This means that the 2020 elections should have [fewer] eligible voters and those that do vote should be older. These changes in demographic profiles make it difficult to forecast and develop strategies for the 2020 election,” the firm noted.
The outmigration seen from 2016 to 2019 was not evenly distributed across the island. Neither was voter participation. While the island’s central and southeastern areas saw higher participation rates in 2016’s general elections (more than 70%), the San Juan metro area lagged (54.1%), according to Abexus’ findings.
“This means that the voters that contributed the most to a lower turnout in 2016 were mainly from the metro area. As such, one could argue that the 2016 party platforms and/or their leaders had much less appeal in the metro area than in the center of the island, or that large urban areas have a greater number of disenfranchised and that voters from the central region have stronger voting traditions,” the firm concluded.
Will there be ‘disruption’?
So, it remains to be seen whether new political parties and the surge of anti-establishment candidates in 2020 will change the way people have voted in the past.
Puerto Rico’s voting population changed significantly in 2016, given that close to 96.5% of all the votes cast between 2000 and 2012 were votes along party lines. However, the appearance of new players in 2016, which prompted that number to drop to 72% could cause that same disruption again this year.
“The traditional political cleavages (divisions) are evolving, and new political divides are persuading the electorate. Depending on the reaction of traditional parties, and how voters perform in 2020, the island’s bipartisanship is — at least — in a four-dial junction,” Abexus noted.
Another point the firm brought up in its findings is that there is a correlation between people who voted along party lines and incomes.
“Our analytics also found that household income has a correlation with the party that won most votes in a particular census tract, i.e. lower income areas were led by the New Progressive Party (in 2016). On the other hand, Popular Democratic Party candidates were more competitive in middle income areas, while independents end to concentrate in areas with a greater distribution of higher incomes,” Abexus said.