Shortage of Technology to Use New Electronic Voting Registry Puts Ballots at Risk

By now, in addition to answering phone calls from voters, the staff of the CEE support centers should be able to communicate through chats, cell phone messages, and emails to answer questions, something that has not happened.

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Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The nearly 100 employees assigned to the Integrated Centers for Voter Services (CESI, in Spanish) in the regional offices of the State Elections Commission (CEE, in Spanish) who are supposed to offer orientation services to voters via text messaging and online are still waiting for the system to be enabled that allows them to provide the service.

The only service they can offer for now is guidance through telephone calls, for which they have a single telephone line to receive calls in each of the 10 regional centers distributed outside of San Juan, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) confirmed with three different sources, something that the CEE acknowledged.

The CESI’s telephone numbers that the voter should call are not published anywhere accessible and are not yet integrated into the voter support calling system.

The 2020 Electoral Code established that there had to be at least one CESI in operation no later than July 1, 2022. The CEE said the San Juan center has been its pilot project, but employee training was done in October 2023, more than a year after what the law established, as the agency announced on its Facebook page.

“The Electoral Code, we must recognize that it has been ambitious on the dates and on the projects that it has imposed on us, and that the Commission has to comply, but we don’t have all the elements to be able to do it. The first challenge that we face is the budget,” said the Alternate President of the CEE, Jessika Padilla Rivera in an interview with the CPI.

The CESI in San Juan is the only one of the 11 existing centers that operates as a call center, answering calls from voters who have problems with the new Electronic Registry  (eRE) and who call the help number that appears on the Registry page. The 12 employees who work at the CESI in San Juan have no other way of electronic interaction with the voter as ordered in the Code, two sources confirmed to the CPI. The calls, which must include at least two officials from different parties to ensure balance when assisting the voter, are answered on speaker, because they do not have headphones either.

San Juan employees answer calls that come through the voter assistance number that appears on the eRE page, 787-945-2374. The first time the CPI called, a voicemail came up giving instructions that had no results.

“It is difficult for us to help you at this time. We invite you to make a virtual appointment and a representative will contact you as soon as possible,” it said. The turn assigned was #12. Then, the CPI entered the phone number to which the representative should return the call. The message was left on February 16, and as of press time, no response had been received.

On a second attempt, the CPI got a new appointment through the system and a service representative answered within half an hour.

Although the CESI in San Juan has 15 workstations, they really operate one or two, the CPI learned, because other tasks have been assigned to the employees.

There aren’t many calls either, two sources said. The first phase of the CEE’s promotional campaign began in December on radio, social media, and billboards to promote the launch of the Electronic Registry. The second phase was just recently launched on February 12.

“On a busy day, we get 20 calls, and the same person may call several times because they haven’t been able to solve their problem. That can be handled by one person or two. In most cases, people end up saying that they will personally go to the Permanent Registration Board [JIP, in Spanish],” a source told the CPI on condition of not revealing their identity.

The employees of the closed JIPs were reassigned to work in the CESIs in their region and for months had no specific tasks, CPI sources said.

The employees at the pilot CESI center access the voter’s file and they guide them on the steps to follow during the call. However, the system does not allow them to make changes to the file; only the person registered to vote can make changes. The changes can also be done by a JIP official when the voter goes there in person.

The Electoral Code eliminated 85 of the 102 JIPs and replaced them with these call centers and interactive call and web centers to guide voters about their electronic voting transactions. The Electronic Registry will be used for the first time in the primaries and next general elections in November. The employees assigned to the CESI can only guide voters so that they can carry out their transactions.

The interaction tool that the CESI should have, must also incorporate “a telephone recording system of exchanges between service representatives and voters” that guarantees the quality of the services and their handling, as provided in the Electoral Code, approved amid much controversy, four months before the 2020 elections.

Staff work area at the Integrated Center for Voter Services (CESI, in Spanish), in Bayamón.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

However, none of the regional CESIs currently have the necessary technology to support voters in their electronic transactions, including access to the call system. The more than 100 CEE employees assigned to the CESI are not all housed in the same building, but they were instead given space in regional CEE offices distributed across the island to remotely help voters. Turnos Media LLC, the company in charge of developing the Voter Support System, told the CPI that it will have the necessary technology in place for it to function in March.

In a visit to the CEE’s regional office in Bayamón — where the JIP and CESI operate — the CPI was able to verify that the desks assigned to employees lack computers and telephones in the cubicles.

The CPI visited other CEE regional offices and ran into voters who had complaints and dissatisfaction with the Electronic Registry and required assistance to complete their online transactions. JIP employees helped the public, as provided in the regulations.

Tasks reshuffled due to lack of technology

In September 2023, Turnos Media LLC landed a $1,063,588 contract to develop the Voter Support System platform. That project is supervised by Edwin Velázquez Bosques, whose company Project Support Inc., has a contract with the CEE to manage that electoral project and was the one that provided the platform design specifications that the agency approved in August 2022. Velázquez Bosques said he would answer questions from the CPI, but then he did not answer calls.

Given the few tasks that CESI employees can perform due to the lack of electronic tools, the CEE assigned them — including those in San Juan — duties other than those designated by the Electoral Code, such as handling registration requests in schools, universities, fairs and home registrations, the CEE acknowledged. In addition, they work with exclusions in the Registry, go to Commission meetings, and offer support to the CEE Planning Office in updating the Electronic Registry, and also to the offices of its commissioners, when they require it. The agency said they also offer services to the platform, which has nothing to do with the CEE.

Because the CESI staff does not serve the public in person and does not have access to the General Registry of Voters’ centralized data system, the voters have fewer staff than in the last electoral cycle to assist them directly in the JIPs that are still operating and cannot count on remote support in the absence of the electronic tools necessary for assistance and interaction with the user.

Staff from the Permanent Registration Boards and the Integrated Centers for Voter Services (CESI) work separately at the regional offices.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Center for Investigative Journalism

The reallocation of resources to tasks that are not a priority is a bad public administration decision, Dr. Palmira Ríos González, former Director of the Graduate School of Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico, told the CPI. She insisted that attention to the voter must be more important for the CEE, especially when the problems faced by the newly implemented Electronic Registry are evident.

“More than a waste of resources for me, it’s a huge fraud because in an area of the protection of fundamental rights, of people’s rights, such as the entire electoral issue, it’s a way of taking away our ability to exercise that fundamental right,” said Ríos González.

The retired professor insisted that this staff should provide support with direct attention to voters to register or make changes that allow them to exercise the right to vote and not perform other duties that do not have that level of need at this time.

“The system is causing problems, many problems, especially with addresses,” said a CEE worker, who did not identify themself.

In the small lobby and while they waited to be helped at the San Juan JIP, the voters recounted the troubles they faced when trying to reactivate themselves. From the close to 10 people waiting to be attended to, at least seven told the CPI that they had tried unsuccessfully to do the transactions remotely through the Electronic Registry. The system did not recognize the address entered or the document that was sent digitally, and in another case, it assigned an address with a number other than the correct one.

“This application is new and is causing problems. I went in, I followed the steps to make my address change, but after sending the document they notified me that the transaction could not be completed, so here I am with the bill [for electricity or water that would show your address],” said a voter who came in person when she could not complete the process online as requested by the CEE.

Elizabeth Plá, a resident of Toa Alta, accompanied her son to process his registration at the CEE office in Bayamón. She told the CPI that, given the problems her daughter faced when trying to do it electronically from home, they chose to physically go to the Regional Office.

“I’m not computer savvy at all, so I didn’t even try,” said Idalia Hornado, a resident of Bayamón, while waiting for her turn to be helped.

More votes to be added manually given problems with electronic registration

The CEE faces the difficulty that, of every 10 transactions that are done in the new Electronic Voter Registry, the system only recognizes one, Eduardo Nieves Cartagena, Director of the Office of Information Systems and Electronic Processing (OSIPE, in Spanish), acknowledged the CPI.

He explained that this is because the system requires a process of address standardization of the more than two million voters who are in the General Electoral Registry.

Previously, the precinct and unit were designated based on the sector where the voter lived; now the electronic system assigns them with the specific physical address, said Padilla Rivera. The voter’s address must include the street name, block, and house number fields written uniformly to assign the precinct and voting unit in the new electronic record. This information is necessary to know the voting station to which the voter will be assigned. The CEE alleges that it does not have such specific uniform addresses for all voters.

Nieves Cartagena said that the CEE General Voting Registry only had 384,000 standardized physical addresses when the Electronic Registry was launched on October 30. For this reason, most voters face problems with their addresses in the new tool. Additionally, the system cannot automatically assign the precinct and unit in which the person should vote.

In 2020, 1,296,379 people voted in Puerto Rico.

“This works efficiently if we have as many addresses as possible in the database, because then the person finds their address and it is automatically assigned,” said Nieves Cartagena.

When the voter cannot find their address, they must enter it into the system and present documents that confirm the information. CEE personnel must validate the address. Once the address is in the system, the CEE Planning Office assigns the precinct and voting unit. That office only had three employees, but in January 2024, it was decided to add another 30 officials. All transactions must be validated by personnel from the CEE’s Quality Control Office, where their workflow had to be readjusted last December because there were 2,600 backlogged transactions, Nieves Cartagena said.

The process is delayed since the addresses are entered manually by the voter themselves or by a JIP official. This exercise must be done with all the addresses entered, explained a source.

All new registration transactions or address changes made in the Electronic Registry or in a JIP must go through this process. There is concern among the electoral commissioners of the Citizen Victory Movement (MVC, in Spanish) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) since, if this transaction is not manually validated, the voter is left in a kind of electoral limbo. Given the number of delayed transactions, that process can take up to three weeks for each voter.

The voter is not left out of the Registry, but he is left without a precinct and unit and so cannot be assigned their voting center, said Lillian Aponte, Electoral Commissioner of the MVC.

“With more than a million addresses to be normalized, in the middle of the election year, it’s unacceptable that the CEE is holding back these transactions as it’s doing. There are situations in which electoral transactions have been pending for months to be normalized,” the Commissioner warned.

“The concern is that in an electoral event like now, when the primaries are underway, there will be a considerable number of voters with delayed transactions and they will have to be manually added at a especial polling station instead of a regular polling station, [which] complicates the process of getting the results,” said the PIP Electoral Commissioner, Roberto Iván Aponte.

Both Electoral Commissioners confirmed they have raised concerns several times with the Director of OSIPE. They have asked him to ensure that the company in charge of developing the tool, OpSec Security Inc., make changes to the programming or look for alternatives to speed up the process before the voters registry deadline gets closer and voter transactions spike.

“85% of the transactions are being carried out at the JIPs and 15% in the Electronic Registry. There is an obstacle, and, for example, we want to make it easier for the JIP to assign the precinct and unit,” said the PIP Electoral Commissioner.

In March 2023, Velázquez Bosques warned electoral commissioners, presidential representatives, and other CEE offices that he would need “an army” of people in the Planning Office, Commissioners Lillian Aponte, Karla Angleró and Roberto Iván Aponte, of the MVC, the Popular Democratic Party and the PIP, respectively, said separately.

But the lag of thousands of Electronic Registry transactions remained until February 2024, so the CEE decided to use regional office employees to speed up the process, Aponte said. As of February 14, the CEE has 5,382 belated transactions, Angleró told the CPI.

People who face difficulty completing this process online can go to any of the 17 JIP offices that are still operating.

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