A New York Vote, but a Dominican Contest
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
ew York's Dominicans have long straddled two political worlds, casting ballots in United States elections and flying to the Dominican Republic to vote in national elections there. Yesterday, those worlds merged for the first time when thousands of people voted in the Dominican presidential elections from polling centers in New York and across the country, blending an American attempt at order with a distinctly Dominican voice.
Echoes of merengue blasted from windows in Washington Heights as voters crowded polling sites, often locked in loud debates over their candidates of choice. Those opposed to the incumbent, President Hipólito Mejía, chanted: "Y para fuera vas! Y para fuera vas!" - Spanish for "And out you go!"
But the boisterousness was tempered by the cool, calm presence of New York City police officers, whose political disinterest in the election lent them a greater legitimacy than the officers patrolling sites in the Dominican Republic, some voters said. And the polling sites - mostly cafeterias in public schools - were more orderly than the crowded voting centers on the island.
More than 24,000 Dominicans in New York were among the roughly 52,000 throughout the United States registered to vote in the elections.
"This brings them closer to home than ever," said Fernando Mateo, president of the New York-based umbrella organization Hispanics Across America, who led the campaign to give Dominicans abroad the right to vote. "Dominicans are very passionate with their politics, so they're geared up."
Exit polls in the Dominican Republic pointed to a former Dominican president, Leonel Fernández, as the winner. In New York, ballots were still being counted last night.
At dawn, hundreds of voters began lining up at Public School 128, at West 169th Street and Broadway, in the heart of New York's Dominican stronghold, forming lines that by noon stretched the length of a block.
At some sites, more than 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots by 5 p.m., an hour before the polls closed. (They had opened at 6 a.m.) The numbers overwhelmed some voting booth organizers, especially because much of the crowd arrived in the morning.
"We were not expecting this many people at the same time," said Jose Fernandez, president of the Dominican Election Board of New York, which supervised the election here. "This was the first time. Now we are prepared for the elections in the future."
Some voters at P.S. 128 waited for hours before casting their ballots in cardboard voting booths, observed by delegates from the country's main political parties.
From time to time, arguments erupted and some accusations flew - unfounded, said Mr. Mateo - of corrupt behavior, including reports that a man at one Manhattan polling site misguided voters to other voting centers to keep them from voting.
But the day was largely peaceful, in stark contrast to the Dominican Republic, where three people were shot to death during a dispute at a voting center in the southwestern town of Barahona yesterday.
Voting in the United States was a money-saving option for many of the Dominican immigrants who typically shuttled home to cast ballots in past election years.
Jose Soto, a livery cab driver who lives in Washington Heights, said he used to spend $800 on the trip home to vote. He would also bring money to his two daughters and other family.
"They are mad," Mr. Soto, 50, said. "That was one excuse for them to see me. Now I won't have the need to go there. It's a bittersweet feeling."
Voting in New York was not the same, said Mr. Soto, as he drove away from a polling site near West 138th Street and Broadway.
"In Santo Domingo, you feel more of the emotion," he said. "There's noise and caravans and music. Here it's more cold."
Next time, Sugelis Tavera, 25, said, she plans to return to the Dominican Republic to vote. The lines at P.S. 128 were just too long. "We've been here since 9 a.m.," Ms. Tavera said as she inched toward the front of the line, at 1 p.m.
The campaign to secure voting rights for Dominicans was started by Mr. Mateo eight years ago, after the Dominican Republic adopted constitutional reforms that recognized dual citizenship. Mr. Mateo, who is an entrepreneur and a Republican fund-raiser in the United States, said he invested $50,000 of his own money into the effort.
The campaign gained momentum and, in December 1997, the Dominican Senate and Congress passed a bill granting Dominicans the right to vote abroad. But a lack of money needed to register voters and secure polling sites stymied the new law. Not until this year did the Dominican government finance the effort.
In New York, Dominicans voted at 16 polling sites, in the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Yonkers and Haverstraw. Dominicans also voted yesterday in Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania, as well as in three other countries: Spain, Venezuela and Canada.
For some Dominicans, voting in the elections meant having a say in their own future.
"I'm planning to go back one day before I die," said Rafael Restituyo, 39, a computer technician who lives in Washington Heights and had never voted in a Dominican election. "That's always been my dream. There's nothing like home."