Electronic Vote Count in Puerto Rico was Overpriced, but Mostly Failed Across-the-Board on Election Day

The government of Puerto Rico has paid more than $40 million in leasing and maintenance fees for equipment that for the most part did not work when it was needed.

December 24, 2020

Machines that did not recognize the electronic key to get the process going at the polling stations; others that did not read or in which the ballots got stuck; some that shut off in the middle of the voting process; and many that were unable to transmit the results.

In other polling stations, memory cards were damaged during the voting process or simply never worked. This was the type of failure that was repeated in almost all polling stations during the 2020 election process, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) confirmed with more than 20 sources.

When the State Elections Commission (SEC) was asked for a record of reported equipment failures in polling stations, the agency did not release the information. The CPI learned that to this date, there isn’t a complete report of how many machines experienced malfunctioning or information about how many of those cases were related to a lack of maintenance, because the SEC does not have a formal, agile and consolidated procedure to collect this information.

The agency has an incidents record from the SEC’s Command Center which registers calls received to report problems. But in many cases, officials solved problems directly at the polling stations without reporting them to the Command Center. These cases are never accounted for, according to the sources and commissioners interviewed. The problems would only be validated and quantified after the scrutiny is finished, by reviewing all the reports for each polling station briefcase.

The problems with the machines were much more frequent than in the 2016 elections, when electronic counting was established for the first time in Puerto Rico, all of the sources interviewed agreed.

Machines weren’t maintained, and the consequences unforeseen

The 6,075 electronic counting machines procured through a $38.2 million lease between the SEC and the company Dominion Voting Systems, signed in 2015, did not get the required maintenance, causing many of them to break down during the general election, more than a dozen officials and former SEC officials confirmed to the CPI.

The root of the problem was partly related to a multi-million debt that the SEC had with Dominion. Additionally, the equipment scarcely underwent a basic SEC staff review heading into the 2020 election.

Appendixes B and C of the contract signed in 2015 and valid until 2024, states that the annual payments that the SEC must make to Dominion include $2.6 million to “prepare for the elections,” and starting July 1, 2019 to 2024, an additional $578,208 is due for warranty maintenance that the company should provide to the machines. The document states that the company is not obliged to repair or maintain in case of equipment damage is caused by negligence or misuse.

Staff who worked during the electronic vote count after the 2016 election said the equipment should have remained in Dominion’s custody. However, after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló decided that they would be used for the June 2017 plebiscite, the machines were stored under inadequate conditions in the SEC’s Electoral Operations building, which was severely affected by Hurricane María on September of that year, and were not placed in an air conditioned room until last year, said former SEC first vice chair María D. ‘Lolín’ Santiago, and former alternate electoral commissioner of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) Adrián González. They remained there under poor conditions for nearly two years and nobody did anything.

Problems with the machines, although not of the same magnitude, had been reported during the primaries last August in Guaynabo and in the Democratic presidential primaries held in July.

Dominion representatives did not respond to a request for an interview from the CPI.

The problems with the machines   are also reflected in the findings of the report of the Puerto Rico Bar Association’ Electoral Observers Corps (CAAPR, in Spanish). According to that report, some machines were not cleared of data and reached polling stations with votes registered in the system, which happened in Precinct 1 of San Juan (Unit 2, Polling Station 2) of Abraham Lincoln School in Old San Juan.

“There was some sort of problem with the electronic counting machines at most of the polling stations. In several cases the ballots got stuck in the ballot boxes’ outgoing slot, they turned off for no reason or simply were damaged beyond repair or could not be replaced, causing delays,” the CAAPR report indicates.

According to an election official, there were polling stations where the machines did not read the votes, they “went blank” and did not process the ballots. “It didn’t shut down, but it didn’t read. This happened in Unit 4, Polling Station 2 in the central region in Cidra, at around 3 p.m. on the day of the event,” the official told the CPI.

José Torres, the local PIP electoral commissioner in San Juan Precinct 3, said that although the machines in Unit 20 of that precinct located at the Carmen Gómez Tejera School were replaced, they continued having problems, so there are ballots that were not awarded the night of the event, as the machines did not read them.

Torres said the reports showed that due to the problem with the machines, polling station officials in Unit 28 deposited the ballots into a machine at another Unit (5 and 6), including the ballots added manually, altering the result, because it is unclear which ballot could corresponds to a voter that was not suppose to vote, so it will be up to the Commission to determine if they validate or invalidate all of those votes.

The setbacks with the machines were recorded in the reports of both polling stations and in those of the Unit 20, Precinct 3 Board. The local commissioners of Precinct 3 were notified about what happened, Torres said.

“Apparently the officials of those polling stations did not know that they could not mix the ballots,” he said.

According to the SEC’s command center report, 398 phone calls were received on Election Day from different voting officials with questions about procedures and complaints about machines that had technical problems. The report says they were resolved by the call center staff.

Problems were also reported with the registration officials’ passwords when trying to access the Receipt and Disclosure of Results System (REYDI, in Spanish): issues in which the electronic key to open the machine did not work; a report of a machine that had been programmed with the wrong time of day; voting sites   officials who closed the election before finishing processing all of the ballots that were in the emergency ballot box, and lack of materials in the electoral briefcases.

The replacement of 48 electronic counting machines was also documented on the day of the electoral event, according to the document signed by Brunilda Narváez Meléndez, supervisor of the SEC’s Call Center.

The incidents reported to the local Unit Board do not reach the Command Center, said Eduardo Nieves Cartagena, director of the SEC’s Information Systems and Electronic Processing Office (OSIPE, in Spanish).

“The number of complaints that we have gotten about the malfunctioning of the machines is incredible, so we will request an audit of the SEC’s handling of these machines and the maintenance they were given, if any,” the electoral commissioner of the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC, in Spanish), Olvin Valentín, told the CPI.

The electoral commissioner of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish), Roberto Iván Aponte, said he has been waiting months for an official report about the machines that reported problems in the primaries in the summer after multiple complaints from officials at the time.

The only internet provider hired was Claro, and it failed in many places

Many polling stations could not transmit the results at the end of the day due to a connectivity problem, more than a dozen officials, coordinators and local electoral commissioners confirmed to the CPI. In some cases, it was the machines that failed to produce the final report and in other cases the modem assigned to send the results electronically to the SEC database failed.

This year the SEC contracted only telecommunications company Claro, contrary to the last elections, when two companies, Claro and AT&T, were used to have greater and better coverage, the agency confirmed to questions from the CPI. This time, no electoral simulation was held in the polling stations to make sure that there was coverage to transmit the results, as it happened in 2016. The SEC approved that the trial run  be done only at the Permanent Registration Boards (JIP, in Spanish).

The SEC confirmed to the CPI that there is a list of the polling stations that transmitted via modem (from the electoral unit) and those that transmitted through the JIP’s alternate Results Transfer Manager (RTM, in English) system, but the agency has not provided the list despite repeated requests.

“We don’t know which of the polling stations was the one that the local Unit Board would ultimately use on the day of the event, so it is a test that only fills the ego of those who believe that that is enough. We, who work in computer systems, know that this is a false positive, because there’s no guarantee of transmission either with the cloud, or with tests being done on site, because the inherent conditions of the day of the event are not necessarily the same as the day I went and ran the test,” the director of OSIPE said.

He justified the decision to only hire Claro because it was substantially cheaper and had greater coverage than it had in 2016 due to the improvements it performed on its network after Hurricane María.

The OSIPE director said that in addition to technical failures, there could be other factors that caused voting station officials not to transmit their results from there and decide to go to the JIP. For example, during the voting process at many stations, they chose to put the ballots in the emergency ballot box to speed up the lines, which forced officials to run the ballots through the machines to be read after polling stations closed at 5 p.m. — a process that lasted until the next morning in some cases.

“We have no way of knowing if they had transmission problems from a polling station, because they did tried to transmit, but we didn’t know about it back here  in San Juan,” Nieves Cartagena said after noting that with each machine’s report, the SEC could validate if there was an attempt to transmit, but it would be unknown where this attempt came from because the machines do not have a GPS system.

In addition to the polling stations that had to transmit from their JIP, another 109 stations did not transmit results on elections night, so they were sent to be counted at the Electoral Operations site. Their results were revealed on November 5. Those results included five polling stations where memory cards disappeared.

Lost cards

Officials at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum did not find the memory cards for the machines at five polling stations in envelope #8 of the local commission’s briefcase, nor in the unit or in that of the polling station, so they will wait for the scrutiny to find out if they were in some other briefcase of the corresponding unit, the director of the OSIPE said.

Although it has been reported that they were lost, Nieves Cartagena insists that this term is wrong since it is “very likely” that the polling station officials have mistakenly placed them in another voting station’s briefcase. The five polling stations with missing cards were the San Juan 2, Guaynabo 7, Ponce 61, Luquillo 100 and Río Grande 102 precincts.

“Why aren’t those cards showing up? Electoral Operations looks into the Commission briefcase, then in the Unit Board briefcase, because it might be there, and then it looks in the polling station briefcase. Did I find it in the three briefcases? Was it lost? No. And do you know where the card is, maybe? In a briefcase from another polling station in the same unit,” Nieves Cartagena said after pointing out that the cards will show when all of the unit’s briefcases are opened in the scrutiny.

The electronic counting machines have two cards: one that is removed after the voting process and the transmission of the results ends, and a backup card that must always remain in the machine, multiple sources confirmed to the CPI, including former SEC Chairwoman Liza García.

“It makes no sense that the cards are missing,” several sources said after confirming that the electronic counting machines come equipped with two cards.

Besides, there are protocols to handle the cards and reports of each polling station that has an electoral balance. According to a source who worked on the electronic count, in the 2016 elections all the provisions were made to validate the electronic data with marked ballots.

“About the briefcases, I don’t believe the stories that suddenly appear out of nowhere. Usually, everything is account for and put in vaults, where each party has a key to the lock and cannot be opened without all the commissioners [present],” the source added, referring to the briefcases that have shown up weeks after the elections at the Roberto Coliseum Clemente and in the SEC Electoral Operations building.

Dominion’s bonus contract to repair corrosion on thousands of machines

The machines, stored in the SEC’s Electoral Operations building, became rusty partly due to the damage that the building sustained from Hurricane María, five sources said, agreeing that the machines were “abandoned.”

“Add to that the time they were not in an air conditioned room after the hurricane. These machines and their batteries need to be in temperatures below 20℃ and must be maintained and recharged periodically to maximize their operating capacity,” one of the sources said.

“They underwent no maintenance. Due to María’s issues, storage was very deficient, they rusted and were really damaged,” former Popular Democratic Party Electoral Commissioner Lind O. Merle confirmed to the CPI. Although there is insurance for damage caused by the hurricane, the SEC could not claim for damage to the machines since the government doesn’t own them, the director of OSIPE stated.

In February of this year, the Comptroller’s Office issued an audit report that determined that the SEC had failed to perform preventive maintenance on batteries on 50% of the 6,075 Optical Scanning System (OpScan) electronic counting machines, as required by the maintenance manual. The report warns that this situation could prompt Dominion not to provide the contracted maintenance services and that this could affect the electronic counting of this year’s electoral events.

“Specifically, a two-phase preventive maintenance exercise was planned and carried out between May and August 2018, resulting in 618 machines that did not start up and did not comply with the first phase, which is to charge the batteries. The second phase, in May 2019, was carried out and consisted of validating the process of scanning the ballots and that they worked correctly,” according to the audit report that covers the period from January 1, 2015 to February 1, 2019 and which refers to the SEC’s debt with Dominion.

In 2018 Dominion staff came to Puerto Rico to provide maintenance to the equipment but went back to the United States without offering the service after learning that the SEC would not pay the $5.2 million owed to them.

In September 2019, former SEC Chairman Juan E. Dávila announced that he was paying $3.1 million of the debt, which he said would allow “moving forward with the efforts to proceed with the preventive maintenance the equipment requires.” The SEC had already issued an initial payment in January 2019 for $2.6 million. The outstanding $2.6 million corresponding to fiscal year 2017-2018 was paid at the beginning of this year.

After paying the money owed, Dominion representatives came to Puerto Rico in March of this year to start maintenance work, but they stopped because of the   government’s lockdown mandated in March due to the pandemic. They resumed the work on May 24. After restarting and inspecting the machines, on June 1, 2020, the SEC had to sign another contract with Dominion to repair thousands of machines and replace damaged batteries at a cost of nearly an additional $1 million.

The CPI reviewed the contract that the SEC amended on June 19, 2020 in which it agreed that Dominion would perform “corrective maintenance” work for corrosion found on the façade of 2,000 machines, general repair work on another 500 and the acquisition and replacement of 4,500 damaged batteries, confirming the equipment’s poor conditions. The contract states that the work Dominion would do, including providing assistance on Election Day, is outside the warranty.

The CPI found that in addition to the new repair contract and the payments that the SEC will have to make through 2024 for the original machine rental agreement for $32,288,219.55, the SEC has paid another $777,305 to the company for the acquisition of ballot boxes for the 2016 elections, for programming and technical assistance services in the New Progressive Party (NPP) plebiscite and special election in the Guaynabo mayoral run in 2017, and the Democratic presidential primaries last July, according to the information provided to the Comptroller’s Office Contract Registry.

Beyond maintenance work, the contract signed in June of this year reveals that additional money had to be paid to the company for general repair work on the 6,075 machines. The director of the SEC’s Press and Communications Office, Grisselle López, assured the CPI that this payment was made.

“The truth of the matter is that the SEC was responsible for that equipment. Dominion claims that it did not take proper care of the equipment because there were missteps in the storage of those machines due to the conditions related to the disaster (Hurricane Maria) and others,” the director of OSIPE said.

What happened to the machines?

The order for the machines to be kept at the SEC instead of being sent to Dominion in 2016 was issued by La Fortaleza staff to former SEC Chairwoman, García, in the first weeks of the Rosselló Nevares administration, the former official explained to the CPI. The bill that paved the way for the plebiscite, filed on January 2, 2017, ordered the SEC to begin preparing to use the electronic scrutiny system.

“When the Bidding Board told the SEC about the agreed upon negotiation, they clearly explained that Dominion, as the owner of the machines, wanted to safeguard the equipment under their watch,” García said. She said the procedure to start transferring the machines in March 2017 is on record in an email to Dominion’s project manager, Alex Soto, in December 2016. The process of maintaining and inspecting the equipment to be transferred came to a halt.

The final scrutiny and certification of the results of the 2017 plebiscite ended July 25. The machines remained in use to audit that event in August and were also used during the special election held in Guaynabo on August 5, 2017 after [former Mayor] Héctor O’Neill resigned. Hurricane Irma hit on September 6 and María followed on September 20, without any decision made about the future of the machines.

García ended her term as SEC President on July 31 of that year, a period that was followed by a governance crisis in the SEC, which did not have a President until January 2018 when the now convicted former Judge Rafael Ramos Sáenz was appointed to that position and who less than a month later was forced to resign over his participation in a political chat on WhatsApp.

That governance crisis ended with the appointment of Judge Juan E. Dávila on September 4, 2018, who in his two years in the position — prior to stepping down amid allegations of inefficiency — did not address the issue of the storage and maintenance of the machines.

As of press time, Dávila had not responded to a request for an interview from the CPI about what happened under his tenure.

“The entire space next to the Coliseo de Puerto Rico was used as a collection center for the aid that arrived in Puerto Rico after Maria. It was absolutely under La Fortaleza’s control and not even the SEC employees had access to the building,” González explained. Former First Lady Beatriz Rosselló had entrusted the then NPP Electoral Commissioner, Norma Burgos, to head that task.

The National Guard (assisting in tasks after Maria) left the Electoral Operations building in May 2018 and then SEC personnel were able to regain access to the area, finding rat infestations because some of the supplies had spoiled, Santiago and González agreed.

“We never found written evidence of an obligation by Dominion to remove the machines even though SEC officials, such as former President, Liza García, were under the impression that such a commitment did exist. The hurricane complicated the situation, as well as the deteriorated conditions in which the machines were stored. This coincided with budget cuts that prevented meeting the payment schedule that had been agreed with Dominion. The company delayed maintenance over the lack of payment,” said María de Lourdes Santiago, who at that time was serving as the PIP’s electoral commissioner.

Puerto Rico paid more for obsolete counting machines, a specialist says

Dr. Jorge Tirado Ospina, an international specialist in electoral information technology and systems, believes the problem with the electronic voting machines in Puerto Rico is not the equipment, but the poor manner in which the SEC has handled them since they were bought. He argued that, aside from the possible lack of training of the SEC’s personnel, the problems point more to negligent acts.

“It sounds like there is gross negligence in the way our elections are being conducted. [The machines] haven’t been handled well since they were bought [leased] because they’re stored, damaged and not replaced,” said the expert who has worked in more than 120 elections in 28 countries.

Tirado said Puerto Rico paid a surcharge for machines that are refurbished, old and can only read ballots on special paper that is also very expensive. He said the same year that Puerto Rico paid $38.2 million, Virginia paid $20 million for the same number of machines, the same model, and paid $5 million for Dominion’s maintenance service. He asserted that the SEC could have bought twice as many regular voting machines for the same money paid for these machines.

“I found that they were offering the machines at $25 million plus the service [maintenance that added up to] $30 million, but the other $8 million, which they put down as a service, it wasn’t possible to identify where that $8 million went in the contract. So, we’ve paid for the most expensive voting machines in the entire US,” he said after evaluating the contract between the SEC and Dominion.

The protocol to transmitting the machines’ results

When the time came to send out the results, the problem was across-the-board. Officials didn’t realize the transmission issue until they closed at the end of the day and tried to send the results. The SEC protocol does not have a mechanism in place to run transmission tests on the machines on voting day before the start of the electoral process.

The protocol to use the machine notes that the electoral coordinators of each electoral unit pick up the briefcases with the material in the morning and take it to the polling stations. When the machine is turned on, it is validated that it is at zero count to start the voting process. At the end of the day, a button is pressed to “end the vote” and the machine proceeds to count all the ballots and issues receipts for each of the officials.

If there is an instance when the results cannot be transmitted from the polling station, one of the two cards in the machine is taken out, “envelope # 8” is opened to deposit the card and the reports, and it is sealed. Subsequently, the ballot boxes and the machine are sealed and transported to the JIP so that, within the electoral balance and with the presence of the electoral judge, the seal is opened, the card is placed in a computer to send the results to the SEC through the Results Transfer Manager (RTM) system.

In the case of Precinct 3 in San Juan, the results of the voting stations that had problems could not be transmitted from its JIP since it lacked the necessary infrastructure. As PIP electoral commissioner Torres explained, there were many polling stations in this precinct that could not send the data and they couldn’t do it from the JIP either because for these elections the SEC rented a room in a private school that did not have computers or internet to send out the information.

Torres recalled that in San Juan, as in many other municipalities, the budget cuts at the SEC prompted the elimination of some of the JIPs to be merged. In the case of San Juan, only one out of nine JIPs is located at the SEC’s headquarters in Hato Rey, which also serves as an island-wide JIP. The SEC’s 110 JIPs have been reduced to 78, and of those 74 are open, the agency announced in the summer.

In addition to the card, programming the machines also requires that all ballots are scanned. In 2016, this mechanism was used as an auditing system to ensure that the final number that the electronic counting gave concurred with the votes cast.

“That’s how the audit report that was requested in the 2016 elections could be produced to ensure that the machine assigned the votes the same way that they appeared on the ballots,” said the former SEC President.

If a machine does not read the ballot, it is supposed to be deposited in a cardboard ballot box, to be recorded by hand and recorded in the voting station’s reports on the night of the event, García said.

As of press time, the SEC has not provided the CPI with the list of voting stations where the ballots that the machines did not read have not been counted and that will be acted upon during the general scrutiny.

What wasn’t counted during the event and is being considered in the scrutiny?

Votes from hospitals added manually, votes written-in during the event, ballots that the machine did not read and whose reports could not be reconciled in those 106 precincts of Unit 77 of Polling Station 3 for early voting, some 2,000 inmate votes added by hand, and the absentee vote and vote by mail that arrived with the November 3 postmark, were still yet to be counted. The director of OSIPE confirmed to the CPI that only the reports of that unit were tallied, and the votes were reported at the close of the event in precincts 3 of San Juan, 35 in Aguadilla, in Culebra and in Patillas.

Early voting by mail, absentee and at-home ballots began to be counted on October 26. To prevent officials from seeing the ballots and leaking results or trends prior to election day, the instruction was for the ballots to be processed   face down. According to the OSIPE director, many ballots were rejected because the machine could have detected fewer or excess marks, or that the ballot was blank, and the official was not allowed to turn the ballot over and interact with the machine. He explained that if the machine returned ballots it was removed for manual counting. He estimated that there could be about 200,000 ballots that had to be counted manually.

“Those ballots counted manually that were set aside to be counted manually on November 3 belong to College 3 of Unit 77 of each precinct. Not all precincts finished counting them. None of the precincts were reported in the system. On Saturday, the manual counting process had not yet been completed. It was decided then to assign a zero to Voting Station and address that issue in the general scrutiny,” said Nieves Cartagena.

In addition, of the five polling stations where the card was missing from the briefcases, those stations where ballots were deposited in the emergency ballot box have yet to be allocated, and that at the closing of election day the officials did not manually deposit into the machine so they would be counted electronically that night.

As of press time, the SEC has not provided the CPI with the information on the polling stations with ballots that the machines were unable to read and that will be allocated during the general scrutiny because that information is not known, the director of OSIPE said.

“There are polling stations where the number of votes reported, for example, have 20 ballots when 200 are supposed to vote. We will take care of that in scrutiny. Those ballots are put through a machine and the result is adjusted. We have cases like those in which we don’t know ahead of time, we discovered that in the scrutiny,” said the director of OSIPE who insisted that the SEC does not have direct control of the decisions made by the officials of the 4,524 polling stations and that they follow the procedure.

The SEC chairman has justified that the event was wrapped up without counting a significant number of ballots that the machines rejected and that were set aside to be counted manually. Those ballots are not reflected in the numbers the SEC released when the event closed on November 7.

Rosado Colomer explained that an electoral event is never closed with 100% of the votes counted, and that this is a term that is used to complete the partial count of the votes cast in the elections and start the scrutiny process, in which it is finishes counting 100% of the votes cast.

However, contrary to other elections, this time the event was closed offering partial results (the system forces a disclosure as if 100% had been counted), with thousands of ballots still to be awarded, which were counted manually but whose result are not reflected in the numbers the SEC published because the reports did not add up. This situation occurred in 106 of the 110 electoral precincts in Unit 77 for early voting.

According to the PIP’s Electoral Commissioner, Roberto Iván Aponte, the commissioners reached a consensus to approve the SEC chairman’s proposal to close the electoral event leaving those ballots unallocated to speed up the start of the count, due to the large number of reports that could not be reconciled.

“There were too many reports that didn’t add up and the chairman wanted to conclude the process on the night of the event to give preliminary results and begin the scrutiny,” he explained.

The SEC Chairman explained that he made the decision because the early voting reports did not add up and entering the results of these ballots manually would have taken a long time.

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