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Early Voting 2020 in Puerto Rico: A Disaster that Threatens Democracy

The chaos around early voting happened because the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission (SEC) did not anticipate or plan for the avalanche of voters who would not vote in person at the ballot box on Election Day. This was on top of last-minute changes to the electoral law and poor data management and oversight, a court decision that extended early voting dates, and the long list of shortcomings at the agency resulting from budget cuts. So, the perfect storm was created.

December 23, 2020

The disconnect between the databases used for the 231,167 special vote requests registered by the Absentee and Early Voting Administrative Board (JAVAA, in Spanish) and the Permanent Registration Boards (JIP, in Spanish) is one of the major deficiencies that caused a duplication in the number of requests prior to the Puerto Rico elections, an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found after interviewing more than a dozen sources within the State Elections Commission (SEC).

“Two different ways of voting could have been registered for the same voter: early and absentee,” said a person who worked closely with the process of entering the data of the requests for these votes in the SEC’s database.

The JAVAA and JIPs, the two entities that handle these requests, worked on two different tables within the same database. This resulted in JAVAA staff overlooking the requests that the JIPs were processing. In turn, the JIPs had no visibility of the applications processed by the JAVAA.

The CPI interviewed several people who agreed that this communication failure between the data and the two working groups, coupled with the lack of basic materials, equipment and staff to strike an electoral balance in all processes were the root of some of the problems the SEC faces now, after the general election on November 3. Added to this was the chaotic process due to the short window available to implement new procedures mandated by the recently approved electoral law and the limitations due to COVID-19.

The director of the Information Systems and Electronic Processing Office (OSIPE, in Spanish), Eduardo Nieves Cartagena, confirmed that there was duplication of applications, but assured that “the problem wasn’t the system, but rather a lack of consistency in following the procedures” by the SEC divisions responsible for managing the different modalities of absentee and early voting this year.

However, Nieves Cartagena admitted, to questions from the CPI, that the ideal situation would have been for the JAVAA to have seen the requests processed by the JIPs. “There was no time to modify the system,” he said. Asked why this was not done in time for this election, he replied: “It would have been crazy, because fine-tuning the entire system would have taken at least a year.”

The incidents triggered by this situation are just an example of the JAVAA’s management and organizational problems, a chaotic execution that was also seen in the electoral Unit 77 of the San Juan precincts, where Manuel Natal Albelo (who ran for Mayor of San Juan for the Movimiento de Victoria Ciudadana) has charged that there are more ballots than people who voted in that unit and that early voting ballots were mixed at the polls so that it is impossible to determine which group they correspond to.

Meanwhile, the Popular Democratic Party asked for an internal audit of the early vote. SEC President Francisco Rosado Colomer admitted that the handling of the mail-in vote briefcases “was irregular.” In addition, he accepted to the CPI that on October 30 he received an email from OSIPE with a list of 212 cases of “possible duplicates.”

It won’t be known for sure until January or February if a voter voted twice, if the SEC could have counted the same vote twice, or the consequences of this chaotic early voting process. The SEC President  said the lists would be formally purged in coming months. He said, however, that at this stage “they are doing something more or less similar [to debugging lists], which is not that exactly either, but that’s what is happening.”

When on September 4, the SEC election commissioners gave its approval to integrating JIP officials into the early voting registration process, this implied that they would work outside of the JAVAA. Voters could go to any municipal JIP office to request early voting, while absentee voting requests would be being processed through the JAVAA, whose staff is based at the SEC’s Electoral Operations building in San Juan.

“The databases didn’t communicate with each other. It wasn’t until just two weeks before the elections that OSIPE inserted everything that the JIPs recorded into the JAVAA module. Meanwhile, they didn’t know what we had registered, and we didn’t know what they had registered,” the source told the CPI, which the OSIPE director confirmed.

The CPI confirmed with another source that works at the JAVAA that many voters called there asking about the status of their applications, but there they could not give them information because the request for early voting had been taken to the JIP and it was not reflected in the General Registry.

Although the head of OSIPE told the CPI that the JIPs’ transactions were registered on October 14 in the JAVAA module, several sources said the managers actually saw them days later, close to election day.

The consequence of this data disconnection, up to almost three weeks before the electoral event, was that there were duplicate applications, inconsistencies in the types of duplicate applications, and voters who did not know the status of their applications.

The lack of resources and employees who did not follow established protocols or address anticipated problems in time also led to ballots   being sent to old addresses and duplicate mailings of envelopes with ballots.

The CPI learned that OSIPE personnel promised the JAVAA managers that the information already processed in the JIPs would be made visible to be able to tell “where we were at.” But that never happened.

Two sources said, however, that OSIPE gave each of the JAVAA managers access to a PDF document in October so that they could see some “4,000-plus” applications that the JIPs had processed.

“Duplicates have always been an issue in the Commission,” said Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) Electoral Commissioner Roberto Iván Aponte.

The new Electoral Code — approved on June 20 — eliminated the positions of vice chairman and deputy secretaries at the SEC. In fact, José Crespo, who was deputy secretary of the SEC, used to be responsible for verifying the duplicates.

Most of the problems occurred in the midst of an SEC governance crisis, caused, first, by doubts cast on the leadership of SEC President, Juan Ernesto Dávila, after the tumultuous primaries, and later, after his resignation on September 3, two months before the election. Judge Francisco Rosado Colomer was appointed four days later as president.

When the current SEC presiding judge was asked who was responsible for this situation, he said: “I can refer [that to] the Department of Justice, which has the power to prosecute. However, I also have to be careful because a mistake is different from negligence or criminal intent. There is an in-between which is gross negligence in the fulfillment of duty, which is very difficult to identify.”

“I don’t know yet if I can establish that a particular person acted out on this criminal conduct. I can be suspicious with the double vote. I can be suspicious of the inappropriate handling of the briefcases, but I don’t believe that any mistake by an official should have an effect on eliminating the voter’s vote,” he added.

Another scenario is that the voter exercised the early vote, and then, on election day, they were also allowed to vote, he said. “Is that gross negligence? I don’t believe so. I think it’s the negligence of the official who allowed them to vote there,” said the President of the SEC.

A storm was brewing for five months
On March 13, the election commissioners approved that, as in previous election events, the JAVAA staff would record absentee, early, and inmate vote requests; while JIP officials would be in charge of the at-home votes.

But on September 4, the tasks of the two organizations were changed, following the recommendation of OSIPE Director Nieves Cartagena. The commissioners approved that the JIPs would work with early voting (in precinct, at home, by mail and easily accessible at the polling station), and the JAVAA would be responsible for processing absentee, inmates, employees and contractors voting. The JAVAA did not have enough equipment and staff. The voter could go to any of the 102 JIP’s  to carry out electoral procedures.

By that date, it had been approved that people aged 60 and older could cast their vote by mail. Since the JIP staff can modify the General Registry when connected to the internet, the “mail-in” type was configured in its system. So, officials could update the postal addresses of voters requesting a vote by mail.

The CPI learned from several sources that by then, the JAVAA had already registered 1,000-plus early voting applications. The director of OSIPE told the CPI that none had been registered as of September 3.

As of September 4, the JAVAA had already been instructed not to register early voting requests.

Buckling against those orders, the JAVAA continued to register early voting requests, while the JIPs were also entering early voting requests, according to the OSIPE director. The JAVAA had recorded 11,334 early votes as of November 2, according to data provided to the CPI.

“The JAVAA did not follow the instructions,” Nieves Cartagena said. A source from that working group confirmed that “there were undisciplined people” in that entity. The SEC President removed the JAVAA’s director, Vilma Rosado Alméstica, from her post on November 11.

The situation worsened when the JAVAA send the applications it had already processed to the JIPs, which entered them in their system, engineer Nieves Cartagena said. Requests were doubled, he confirmed.

OSIPE matched both databases to find duplicate voting applications. They were supposed to match. But that wasn’t the case.

“There were entries for the same voter in which the JAVAA had recorded a vote by mail and the JIP had recorded an in-person vote,” said Nieves Cartagena.

Between September 29 and October 8, the director of OSIPE sent five emails to the JAVAA with 763 duplicate cases.

A source told the CPI that OSIPE insisted on deleting those requests from the JAVAA database. “They could not be erased, because some envelopes with ballots had already been sent and others were already processed, ready to go,” said the same source. These mailings would eventually cause another problem.

Several people close to the JAVAA process said this situation could have been avoided if OSIPE had given them access to see the JIP database from the start, as the JAVAA staff had requested.

There was a pandemic, and the SEC didn’t plan ahead
Requests for early voting broke records. According to OSIPE, there were 57,470 mail-in vote requests. There were 105,454 to vote at-home applications. There were 54,286 applications for early voting lines at the precinct. Applications for easy-access early voting totaled 1,459.

On November 13, the CPI asked the SEC for data on special voting requests. The SEC sent the initial data two days later, and then sent two updates on November 19 and December 3.

When the OSIPE director was asked why the special voting application data changed twice, and if this information should not change after election day, Nieves Cartagena said he would have to find out the timeframe of the data provided to the CPI. The data, he said, may have changed when the duplication of requests was purged.

“Never in the electoral history of this island have there been 105,000 requests for votes at home,” added the source.

As for inmate vote requests, there were 4,896 applications. Meanwhile, there were 312 early voting applications from SEC employees. There were 6,806 requests for absentee voting and 484 for voters who would be traveling during the elections.

A total of 231,167 requests were received when combining early and absentee votes, according to data the OSIPE provided on December 3. In the 2016 election, there were only 26,936 special vote applications in total.

Everything at the last minute, coupled with instability
In addition to the fact that an order from federal Judge Pedro Delgado extended the term from September 14 to the 24th so that voters aged 60 and older could request a mail-in vote, the SEC decided that it would also accept requests for early voting at the precinct or at home for these voters until the new deadline set by the court order.

“This hugely affected the processes in the JAVAA,” said another person involved with the electoral process for more than 20 years.

Since early voting requests had to be processed at the JIPs, the JAVAA’s staff had to forward these forms to the JIP officials. Applications that arrived by email had to be downloaded, printed and sent to the JIPs.

“At first there was no fax, so the JAVAA took the requests to the Liaison and Procedures office and, through the supervising auditors, took them to the JIPs on their weekly visits to oversee staff and audits,” he said.

The process of printing applications was halted for about two weeks due to a shortage of toner for a printer.

The CPI learned of a person who was there from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. printing applications that came through email.

“Many of those [early voting] applications weren’t printed because there was no time,” he said.

The SEC President told the CPI that those applications were not approved as a special vote, implying that they were not on the list of exclusions and could vote on election day.

The JAVAA staff was located on the second floor in the Electoral Operations building, on Federico Costas Street, in Hato Rey. Communication signals there were “horrible.” There were many problems with receiving applications via fax. The incoming application sheets were unreadable. That was when they decided to move the faxes to another area within the Electoral Operations. When they finally began receiving requests by fax, the volume was unmanageable, and the process got out of hand. The JAVAA staff did not know if they were requests directly sent by voters or if they were requests sent by the JIPs.

“It was another mess,” said a source, who explained that the fax worked for a few days.

A source close to the JIP’s operations said that in some offices there was no equipment, to the point that there were officials who sent photos of the applications from their personal phones through WhatsApp.

At the JAVAA, there were only four computers available, according to one source. Given the volume of emails, in one day, a manager could print an average of 50 to 60 applications. Two computers broke down.

“They never were able to respond to everyone,” another source confirmed.

Two sources said that there were problems with suppliers and material procurements. In fact, there were only five telephone lines for the JAVAA team both in Electoral Operations and in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. The JAVAA does not have a photocopier in the General Operations offices.

The new Electoral Code established that three sub-committees would be created to deal with matters related to absentee voting, early voting by mail, and early voting in the presence of an electoral board. Three sources said the sub-boards were not created. The JAVAA worked as it did in the past: with eight tables representing the senatorial districts and a special table.

“Creating those boards was extremely difficult, because the volume of requests and transactions was too large,” said one of the sources.

Salmon-colored lists
There were multiple complaints from voters who saw that a person’s name, usually a relative who requested a special vote, appeared on the official voting lists at the polling stations on November 3.

When Nieves Cartagena was asked about this problem, he said that in prior events, OSIPE generates the voting lists after the registration deadline and the JAVAA cut-off date to receive applications, through a process known as an index.

When these lists are produced, the abbreviation “exc” (for excluded) must appear printed in the space of the voter’s signature, Nieves Cartagena explained. However, he admitted that it was not like that this year.

OSIPE generated the index without waiting for the September 24 cut-off at the JAVAA and at the JIPs. The entity extracted the eligible voters (active and inactive from the previous election) from the General Register to produce the voter lists. And it decided to resort to a method that it had not turned to since 2000: to make a list of exclusions for special votes. These lists were printed on salmon-colored sheets.

Why? The closing dates did not match. The last day to register was September 14, while the period to request special votes was extended until September 24.

“We couldn’t stop the production of [voter] lists, because it’s a big undertaking, and it slows us down in terms of the packaging processes and so on. We moved ahead with producing lists and then we generated the exclusions lists, in salmon-colored, legal size [paper], which were included in every polling station briefcase,” the engineer said.

On the morning of Election Day, officials were to take the salmon-colored lists, search for those voters on the voting lists, and hand write the word “excluded” in the signature space, according to the SEC executive.

At least two officials from two different polling stations told the CPI that they had not seen the salmon-colored sheets. The SEC showed the CPI briefcases that are under scrutiny that did have the sheets. Nieves Cartagena said the instructions were sent but added that it is not OSIPE’s responsibility if the people in charge did not follow the instructions.

If a voter was approved for early voting, but he was not visited at his home by SEC staffers, or did not receive the ballots by mail, they could vote on November 3, Rosado Colomer explained. The polling station official should have verified that the voter was excluded, according to the salmon-colored sheet, but  they would have voted as “added manually.”

The judge admitted that there were officials who — due to lack of training or human error — did not verify the list of excluded voters and allowed them to vote at the polling station. “If a voter voted early and voted on November 3, they have a very big problem,” the President warned.

Although the deadline to request early voting was extended until September 24, the JIPs continued entering data until Sunday, October 11, Nieves Cartagena said.

OSIPE produced a list on October 11, which it sent to the parties three days later. But that list could not be certified as final because another was eventually generated, Nieves Cartagena said.

“There were 2,192 applications that the JAVAA recorded after October 11,” he added.

On November 2, OSIPE produced a second list of voters excluded by early voting that complemented the first. “That list was printed and was in OSIPE in case the JAVAA asked for it,” the director said.

OSIPE did not send the supplementary list to the JAVAA, “because the JAVAA didn’t ask for it,” said Nieves Cartagena.

To justify that, he said those 2,192 applications should be processed with the inclusion and exclusion certification method. The JAVAA and the SEC Secretary’s office are responsible for those certifications, he said.

When the CPI asked if those 2,192 votes were added by hand, the SEC President said “it depends, because if they were on the list to be visited in  their homes to collect the vote, they may have voted that way. Or it could be that they got to their house, and [the voter] wasn’t there and on the day of the event they could be added manually to vote.” Perhaps they didn’t even vote, he added. The judge said that when the lists are purged in January or February, it will reveal how they voted.

The JAVAA’s current Chairwoman, Rosa Vellón Márquez, and the acting secretary of the SEC, Thais Reyes Serrano, were not available for an interview on how those 2,192 applications were processed.

A source very close to the JAVAA told the CPI that, in other electoral events, each manager representing the parties validated the inclusion and exclusion certifications before being delivered to the SEC Secretary’s office. This year, this electoral balance did not occur due to the new electoral law. Each manager worked on some certifications independently and then delivered them to the Secretary, two sources confirmed. Reyes Serrano replaced Ángel Rosa Barrios as SEC secretary on September 22.

The envelope odyssey

Although the JAVAA staff were aware that it would be transferred from the Electoral Operations building to the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, they were not told when, sources said. One day General Service Office staff told them, “the trucks and the drivers are here. You’re moving today.”

The move was on September 23, in the midst of the application process. They lacked the right conditions to move ahead with the work at the Coliseum. There was no internet connection. It wasn’t until the next day, past noon, that they began getting back to work.

JAVAA is made up of five managers from each party and a chairman, and is responsible for managing the application process, voting and adjudication process of absentee and early votes.

This year JAVAA staff could not keep up with preparing the mailing envelopes with the ballots. Officials from the JIPs at the island-wide level were called in to assist in this process at the Coliseum.

The four ballots were placed in each envelope: state; mayoral; legislative; and plebiscite; three other envelopes; and instructions. Officials from at least two parties had to initialize each ballot on the back. According to OSIPE data, 57,470 voters requested early voting by mail, which became 229,880 ballots, since there were four ballots for each voter.

JAVAA printers generate one label with the address for the envelope at a time. Given the high volume of mailings and a lack of adequate printers, OSIPE recommended that the General Services Office print them.

However, JAVAA staff had already sent out some certified envelopes to voters. At the OSIPE director’s request, the JAVAA provided him with a list of the 1,097 voters who had already been sent the paperwork. Correcting this list delayed the process three days, Nieves Cartagena said. Finally, the list was reduced to 840 cases in which the address label should not be printed, because they would get a second envelope with ballots.

At that stage, OSIPE told the JAVAA that, of that list of 1,097 cases, there were 14 cases that did not reflect any request registered by the JAVAA or by the JIPs.

The situation was aggravated after the director of OSIPE noticed that some addresses the JIPs entered into the system did not correspond to those written in the requests. The SEC President was notified on October 8. The next day a review was ordered that ended with the Quality Control Office correcting and updating certain addresses.

Less than a month before the general elections, two serious situations collided. There was the risk of sending two envelopes to the same person and, in addition, sending ballots to the wrong addresses.

If the JIP official failed to update the postal address when the application was entered into the system, the voter would not receive the ballots. They would arrive at the last postal address registered with the SEC. If the voter did not change their physical address before September 14, they would receive the ballots corresponding to the precinct of their last registered physical address.

Since there were so many applications, JIP officials entered them in the system after the September 14 voter registration deadline. So even if those voters had updated their physical addresses on paper, officials could no longer change them in the system.

Mailings were done by certified mail. So, there is an acknowledgment of receipt.

The process establishes that when a voter returns their ballots by mail, they must send a copy of a photo identification so that the JAVAA can validate it against the voter’s picture in the Electoral Registry. The voter who received the ballots by mistake could not use them to vote.

But a JAVAA source told the CPI that it saw two cases of envelopes with voters’ names and marked ballots that arrived with a copy of someone else’s ID. “Those ballots were counted because they were put on the tables following an order from the SEC President, skipping over the validation process. There must be more,” the source warned. Rosado Colomer flatly refused having given that order.

He stated that those cases have not come to his attention, but “if that happened and it must be investigated, it will be investigated,” he said.

The same source assured that there is a “considerable number of envelopes” with counted ballots that arrived by mail and the names of the people appearing on those envelopes do not have a registered application. When faced with that allegation, the SEC President told the CPI that “he doesn’t have a complaint from the Postal Board telling me that this happened.” If they identify it, the information is validated and then referred to the proper entities, said Rosado Colomer.

There were voters who received two envelopes with ballots, as was the case that the mayor of Morovis reported. One mailing could have been done by the JAVAA and the other happened when OSIPE generated the labels.

The SEC President told the CPI that he is looking into the “the suspicion of two envelopes [with already marked ballots] that arrived with the same identification.”

The CPI confirmed with several sources that there were envelopes with ballots that the postal service returned to the JAVAA because of wrong addresses. That division had no way of validating the address when they got them back, since the early voting application papers were at the JIP’s offices.

OSIPE generated the list sent to the SEC President of 212 cases of possible duplicates. “[The] JAVAA is now checking the review to see if we received two envelopes [for these voters],” Rosado Colomer confirmed.

If there was a purging process, why did these irregularities happen?, the CPI asked.

“The JAVAA did not inform us about all the cases to which it had sent ballots,” Nieves Cartagena explained. “That initial list of 1,097 submissions [that the JAVAA produced] was wrong.” The case that the mayor of Morovis reported, he says, is an example of the problem, because it never appeared on the list of delivered ballots that the JAVAA turned over to OSIPE.

Regarding the issue of the outdated addresses, Cartagena Nieves said it could be because “the JIP officials did not get the instructions for mail-in voting” from the SEC’s Liaison and Processing Office. “Neither JAVAA, nor OSIPE [are responsible].”

Confusion abounds when filling out early voting form

Requests for the special vote arrived by mail, fax and to the offices of the electoral commissioners of the five parties. However, a high volume came through email from the JAVAA. Three sources told the CPI that there were between 17,000 and 21,000 applications in the JAVAA’s email inbox.

One of the sources — also close to JAVAA’s work — explained that there were voters whose names appeared requesting absentee and early voting due to lack of knowledge of the differences in the forms.

One of the sources — also familiar with the JAVAA’s work — explained that there were voters whose names came up requesting absentee and early voting because of inexperience in dealing with the differences in the forms.

The absentee ballot form was the first to be posted on the SEC’s website. When the island’s population was informed that they could apply, the early voting form was not posted on the SEC’s website.

“When the voters entered [the website], they saw the document that says ‘absentee’ vote, so they filled out that request because logic tells them that they will be ‘absent’ from the event. They don’t know the differences between the forms,” the source said.

There were voters who filled out the absentee ballot application when they really had to fill out the early voting application, a problem that the JAVAA detected because they wrote down Puerto Rico addresses to mail-in the ballots. Off-island voters are the only ones eligible for absentee voting.

There used to be a request for early voting and another for voting at home, this year both requests were merged into the same document.

This generated confusion, several sources who filled out or received the document said.

The document lists 12 categories of voters who can request early voting. These voters can cast their vote by mail or in person, except for the easy access vote. In addition to the mail, this category allows requesting that someone from the SEC goes to their home or the person can vote in an easy access polling station in the corresponding voting center.

The form asks a person twice how they would prefer to vote, which is confusing. In addition, sources close to the process of receiving the applications explained that there were voters who marked all the options when they requested the easy access vote. That is, by mail, at home or at an easy access polling station in the precinct.

Given the time limitation, the JAVAA had to choose the option in those ballots. Voters claim that officials called them or went to their homes without them having requested it or — on the contrary — that they were never visited, despite having requested it.

Although there may be voters who, due to lack of guidance, filled out several applications more than once because they “got anxious,” one of the sources did reject the possibility that the doubling of applications could have been caused because the voter was led to make a mistake or because someone else has also applied on their behalf.

Absentee vote

The SEC received 6,806 absentee ballot requests, according to data provided on December 3. Absentee voting applies to “all active voters” residing in Puerto Rico, but who will not be on the island on election day. These voters had the right to vote this year.

“The term ‘every voter’ will not be subject to interpretation,” the regulations under the new electoral law say. Nor can they be questioned or asked for documents of any kind.

“The Commission does not have the real mechanism to verify this (if they are also registered voters in the United States),” former Electoral Commissioner Guillermo San Antonio Acha confirmed.

At the end of May, the electoral commissioners agreed that the SEC President   should ask the electoral bodies of the 50 US states for a list of Puerto Ricans registered in “any state.”

The OSIPE director said that not every state shared  data with Puerto Rico.

A total of 5,551 Puerto Rican voters appeared   registered in Puerto Rico and the United States, according to SEC documents. In June, former Electoral Commissioner of the Popular Democratic Party, Lind O. Merle Feliciano, requested that they be excluded from the General Register. The former New Progressive Party commissioner, María D. Santiago, disagreed.

Following a lawsuit that Merle Feliciano filed, the request to purge the electoral registry moved forward. Nieves Cartagena confirmed to the CPI that it was not done.

“This purge wasn’t finished, and it’s unknown whether these people voted or not,” said Olvin Valentín Rivera, Electoral Commissioner for Movimiento   Victoria Ciudadana    .

Nieves Cartagena said that in the United States only one last name is used. “For example, how many ‘José Rivera’ from San Juan, can be included in the lists [provided by these US electoral bodies],” he said. Providing the last four digits of a Social Security number was not a registration requirement. So, the SEC does not have that data to authenticate all voters.

To solve this issue, collaborative agreements between Puerto Rico and these agencies in the US are needed. Since each state oversees its own electoral system, Nieves Cartagena said there are counties that have their own electoral systems. “If a state has 50 counties, each county would have to have a collaborative agreement with the SEC,” he added.

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