PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza on Friday called for the accessible ExpressVote machines to be removed from use prior to Tuesday’s primary election, prompting a swift response from voting rights advocates who said the machines should stay.
The ExpressVote machines — which allow a voter to select candidates on a touch-screen or using an accessible remote — have had a myriad of errors on the Spanish version of the ballot during early voting, a problem that vendor Election Systems & Software has attributed to human error.
As Target 12 first reported, Rhode Island candidate names from 2018 were uploaded for four different races last week, an error that was discovered by a voter at the polls in Providence.
After the error was fixed, the new version with the correct candidates still misspelled the name of a mayoral candidate, Gonzalo Cuervo. And then the Board of Elections revealed this week that several headings for various races were also incorrect.
The issues affected Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, the four communities required by law to provide Spanish ballots to voters.
“Given the repeated problems and the fact that other, existing machines can handle the volume of voters for Sept. 13, I believe it is prudent to remove the new ExpressVote machines and eliminate the risk of additional errors being made,” Elorza said in a letter sent to the R.I. Board of Elections executive director Bob Rapoza and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
“I would hope that they already have a backup plan for this,” Elorza told reporters outside an unrelated event Friday. “I hope that they’re not relying solely on these ExpressVote machines for people with disabilities.”
The Board of Elections scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday morning to discuss Elorza’s request.
A spokesperson did not immediately comment on whether the Automark machines — the previous accessible machine, which officials say is outdated — are even still available. But the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause Rhode Island both called on Elorza to retract his statement.
“If Rhode Island removes the ExpressVote from service during the statewide primary, it would be
violating the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU
of RI. “Voters with disabilities have a right to use a machine that can assist them voting their ballot,
and the ExpressVote is that machine.”
Gorbea’s office deferred comment to the Board of Elections, which is in charge of deploying the machines. But her gubernatorial campaign separately sent out a statement slamming Elorza for a “political stunt.” (Elorza has endorsed one of Gorbea’s rivals, Helena Foulkes, in the governor’s race.)
“Mayor Elorza could have presented his concerns to the Board of Elections at their public meeting held on Sept. 7, but he didn’t,” said Dana Walton, Gorbea’s campaign manager. “These machines are in place to ensure voters with disabilities have equal access to voting. Calling into question the integrity of the election systems for political gain is a Trumpian tactic. Mayor Elorza’s crass remarks are off-base and irresponsible.”
At its meeting Wednesday, the Board of Elections voted to implement a protocol for the November election to ensure the accuracy of the candidate names uploaded to the machine. Left unresolved, however, was the matter of who was at fault for not checking the accuracy of the private vendor this time.
Gorbea has said the elections board was responsible for doing so, while Rapoza said his staff only checks the “tabulation” of the machine, not the candidate names on the screen.
“It is frustrating how it seems like they’re just pointing the fingers at each other,” Elorza said. “I’ve read the statute and it’s clear that they have joint authority and responsibility over this.”
Elorza also said the elections officials should make a plan for what to do with any possible “tainted ballots” that don’t reflect the voter’s intent. But it’s unclear how many of those ballots might exist; 55 voters used the ExpressVote machine before the issue with the wrong candidates was discovered, and it’s unknown how many voters selected Spanish on the machine.
The Board of Elections has already said they will count all 55 ballots as cast, and pointed out that voters had a chance to review the print-out of their candidate choices before submitting the final ballot into the DS200 scanner to be counted. (The machines printed out a ballot with a vote for the candidate in 2022 who had the same spot on the ballot as the 2018 candidate whose name had showed up on the Spanish-language screen, according to the Board of Elections.)
But Elorza, who himself voted on the ExpressVote in English last week, said he personally only reviewed his final choices on the screen, not on the printed version.
“I thought I had already finished voting,” Elorza said.
The printed version is also only available in English, the elections board revealed this week, another issue with the new machines. The problem is expected to be fixed by November’s general election — not in time for the primary — but voting rights groups said it was not a reason to pull the machines.
“There have been significant problems with implementation of the ExpressVote and our organizations are deeply concerned about them,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Despite the problems that have been uncovered in the last two weeks, the ExpressVote is necessary to allow voters with disabilities to vote independently.”
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.