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Puerto Ricans vote on 2 constitutional amendments

Danica Coto

Hundreds of thousands of voters crowded polling stations across Puerto Rico on Sunday to decide whether to amend the island's constitution via a two-part referendum that sharply divided the U.S. territory.

The referendum questions called for shrinking the local legislature by almost 30 percent as part of a cost-saving measure and allowing judges to deny bail in certain murder cases. Puerto Rico is currently the only place in the Western Hemisphere where everyone is entitled to bail regardless of the alleged crime.

People walked, drove, cycled, skateboarded and arrived by wheelchair at polling stations and stood in line, sometimes under a brutal sun.

"This is one of the most important referendums in many years," said Alexandra Beltran, a San Juan resident who voted in the upscale neighborhood of Ocean Park accompanied by her husband and young daughter. "I believe it's time we do something to intimidate criminals."

The island of nearly 4 million people reported a record 1,117 homicides last year, and the drug-fueled violence continues unabated, with an increasing number of innocent bystanders being killed.

Polls closed late Sunday afternoon, but officials with the elections commission said it was too early to say how many of Puerto Rico's 2.3 million registered voters participated. With 113 of 1,643 polling stations reporting, and 20,395 votes counted, 51 percent voted in favor of reducing the legislature and 49 percent against it. Fifty percent voted in favor of limiting bail and 50 percent voted against it.

If approved, the bail rule would go into effect by month's end, while the reduction of the legislature's size would become effective in January 2017.

At polling stations in the impoverished seaside town of Loiza, some voters decried the wave of violence that has hit their town especially hard.

"I came to vote because they killed my only son six months ago," Aurea Elicea said as she wiped away tears.

Limiting bail would prevent suspects from intimidating witnesses and killing again while out on bail, she said, adding that her son's killer hasn't been arrested.

"That is why people don't testify," she said.

The referendum comes just weeks after federal prosecutors charged a man with murder and held him two weeks without bail only to release him after saying they had the wrong person. It was a case still fresh in the minds of voters like Daisa Rivera, 30, who said there should always be a presumption of innocence.

Other voters such as 56-year-old Efrain Santos Clemente remained unswayed.

"Given the current situation in Puerto Rico, I think we need to find a solution to the increase in crime," he said, adding that he supports shrinking the legislature so that money can be used to reduce crime as several politicians have pledged.

If approved, the bail amendment would grant judges the right to deny bail to those accused of premeditated murder, killing a police officer or killing someone in a public space or during a home invasion, sexual assault or drive-by shooting.

The referendum question on the legislature would reduce the number of Senate seats from 27 to 17 and the number of House seats from 51 to 39.

Outside a polling station, Gloria Saldana, 67, was still pondering the bail proposal as a neighbor of hers drove away and yelled at her to vote against both proposals.

She said she hadn't decided whether to support the bail change, but she was definitely voting against reducing the size of the legislature.

"There are 73 right now, and they don't do anything," she said. "If there are less of them, they will do even less work."

Puerto Rico's legislature is among the highest paid of any U.S. jurisdiction, a fact that riles many islanders already angry about the number of corruption cases that have surfaced in recent years.

"Everyone knows they are stealing a lot and they are making a lot of money," said 59-year-old Jose Calderon, who voted in support of the referendum.

The Associated Press