PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The new touch-screen ballot machines being used in this year’s election erroneously displayed some 2018 candidates on the Spanish-language ballot during early voting, Target 12 has learned.

The error affected voters who chose to use the new ExpressVote machine and selected a Spanish ballot in Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, the secretary of state’s office and the R.I. Board of Elections said. Early voting started on Aug. 24.

The elections officials said 55 voters utilized the ExpressVote machine in the affected cities before the problem was discovered earlier this week, but it’s unknown how many of the voters selected Spanish as their language. The English ballots in the machine were not affected.

The incorrect candidates were uploaded into the machine for the Democratic primary for Providence mayor and lieutenant governor and the Republican primary for treasurer and the 1st Congressional District, according to the elections board.

A Providence voter discovered the issue while voting on Tuesday, according to Theresa Agonia, a spokesperson for the city’s elections director Kathy Placencia.

“The ballot that appeared on the screen listed 2018 candidates,” Agonia said. “Providence poll workers immediately turned off the ExpressVote machine and the voter was able to vote via a paper ballot.”

The Board of Elections was notified on Tuesday, Agonia said, and rectified the issue on Wednesday.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said the candidate names are uploaded into the ExpressVote machines by the third-party vendor Election Systems & Software. Gorbea said her office provided the correct 2022 candidates to the vendor, which has worked for the state for years.

The machines themselves are controlled by the R.I. Board of Elections.

In a letter to Board of Elections chair Diane Mederos on Thursday, Gorbea said state law requires the R.I. Board of Elections to verify the accuracy of the ballots loaded into the machines.

“As a result of our rigorous and thorough process, the candidate information and paper ballots are
accurate,” Gorbea wrote in the letter. “However, the ExpressVote machines, over which your agency, the Rhode Island Board of Elections, maintains custody and control, did not have the correct Spanish language screens.”

Gorbea said her office was notified by R.I. Board of Elections executive director Bob Rapoza about the issue on Wednesday. The third-party vendor then went in person to the four cities affected to correct the candidates entered into the machines, according to spokesperson Johnathan Berard.

“Given the gravity of this situation, I respectfully request that the Rhode Island Board of Elections order an independent audit confirming the accuracy of the Election System & Software (ES&S) ExpressVote machines,” Gorbea wrote in the letter.

In a memo to Gorbea and the Board of Elections on Friday, ES&S said: “ES&S takes responsibility for the human error in coding and apologizes to voters, the Board of Elections, the State, and the affected candidates.”

The company attributed the issue to “human error” on the part of its staff, and said the problem was fixed on Wednesday after review and approval by the board.

The ExpressVote machines are being used for the first time this year, replacing the Automark machines as the accessible option for voters who need assistance filling out their ballots. They can be used with headphones, for example, to help a blind voter fill out their ballot.

But elections officials have been encouraging any voter, regardless of disability, to try out the machine rather than filling out a paper ballot. (Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza utilized the ExpressVote machine when he voted on Tuesday, and used the English ballot.)

The ExpressVote touch screen is only for marking ballots, not submitting votes; the machine prints out the voter’s selections on paper, which is then fed into the regular DS200 voting machines to be counted.

“I’d like to see the state consider a different technology in future elections,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Is this the right machine? And I’d like to see new processes put in place so the mistake doesn’t happen again.”

Gorbea’s office signed a new five year, $3 million contract with ES&S this year for both the ExpressVote machines and the DS200 machines where voters feed their paper ballots to be counted.

“We need to review all of the legal recourses that we have, as well as financial recourses that we have,” Gorbea said.

Several of Gorbea’s political opponents for the Democratic nomination for governor quickly jumped on the issue, arguing Gorbea should be held responsible for what happened.

“Our office gave exact and precise and correct information to the vendor and to the Board of Elections,” Gorbea said when asked if she did anything wrong. “The minute that I found out there was a problem with the ExpressVote machines, I urged the Board of Elections to go public and to let people know what exactly happened.”

Marion said it was “alarming” that the issue wasn’t caught before the election, but pointed out that early voting helped catch it before the wider public went to the polls.

“If this mistake were first found on election day, that would be a huge problem,” Marion said.

Gorbea is calling on the the Board of Elections to audit the machines and explain to the public why the accuracy was not verified prior to delivering the machines to cities and towns.

“I’m calling on the Board of Elections to be transparent and tell Rhode Island voters what happened with the ExpressVote machines, how is it solved, and how can we make sure that this never happens again,” Gorbea said in an interview. “We need a full audit of the ExpressVote system.”

The Board of Elections executive director Bob Rapoza declined to be interviewed about the mishap.

Through an outside public relations firm, Rapoza said the problem has been resolved.

“I want to reassure all Rhode Island voters that this issue has been resolved and they can have full confidence casting their ballots utilizing ExpressVote ballot marking machines,” Rapoza said.

“We are working closely with ES&S and the Office of Secretary of State to understand how this error occurred, and to ensure that it never happens again.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.