PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Board of Elections voted on Wednesday to shore up their protocols related to checking ballot names on new voting machines ahead of the November election, after machines in four cities last week erroneously displayed the names of 2018 candidates for several offices.
The snafu has also revealed a new fissure between the secretary of state’s office and the Board of Elections — separate state agencies which disagree on who was responsible for checking the work of the private vendor that made the mistake.
The error was discovered during early voting last Tuesday after a Providence voter, utilizing the new accessible ballot marking machine called ExpressVote, saw Mayor Jorge Elorza’s name on the touch screen, according to Board of Elections executive director Bob Rapoza.
Elorza is term-limited and isn’t running in any races this year.
Providence’s election director Kathy Placencia notified the Board of Elections, which had private vendor Election Systems & Software fix the problem.
Ultimately, the vendor discovered four different primary races where the 2018 candidates were displayed on the screen: Providence mayor, the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, the Republican primary for general treasurer, and the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District.
The mishap only affected those who selected Spanish on the ExpressVote machines.
The machines are in use for the first time this year, replacing an outdated machine as the option for voters with various disabilities to mark their ballots. A blank card is inserted into the machine, which later prints out the voter’s choices. The voter can use a touch screen or use audio cues and a braille remote (for the visually impaired) to make their selections.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she was “outraged” by the error, which her office said should have been caught by the Board of Elections before the machines were deployed for early voting.
Gorbea last week called for the elections board to conduct a full audit of the machines.
Even after the correct candidates were uploaded to the machines by ES&S, there was another error discovered this week: mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo’s name was misspelled “Gonzolo,” according to a spokesperson for the city of Providence. The spelling error was fixed on Tuesday.
The elections board, which conducted “logic and accuracy” testing for Rhode Island’s voting machines from Aug. 15 to Aug. 22, declined for days to answer questions from Target 12 about whether they checked that the candidates’ names were correct on the touch screen. Spokesperson Chris Hunter said ES&S was responsible for checking the candidate names.
In an interview Wednesday after the Board of Elections meeting, Rapoza said his staff was not responsible for checking the accuracy of the names, but declined to say whose responsibility it was.
“We checked the tabulation of these ballots,” Rapoza said. “We make sure that the machines tabulate the ballots correctly. The names on the ballots are not checked by the Board of Elections.”
He walked away during the interview with Target 12, declining to answer further questions about what went wrong with the process.
During Wednesday’s meeting, ES&S account manager Joe Vitale confirmed that the candidate names were not checked during the private company’s testing of the machines.
“The person testing the machine, they’re actually putting in a blank card,” Vitale said. “They have no idea what’s supposed to be on the ballot.”
He said the testing was focused on whether the machine was working correctly. But he said from now on, the person testing the machines would also have a sample ballot in front of them, so they can check the candidate names.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Vitale said. “If we had done that this past time, hopefully the tester would have caught the error.”
Multiple board members said it’s possible Rhode Island law needs to be changed to clarify responsibilities in light of the new machines. Existing law says the secretary of state is responsible for proofreading the ballots, while the Board of Elections is responsible for testing the machines.
But this is the first time candidate names are being uploaded to a machine, causing apparent confusion as to which agency is responsible for checking the accuracy of the names in the machine.
“I think come January, we put something in our legislation to address the ExpressVote particularly,” said board member Louis DeSimone. “The law that’s in existence doesn’t really address this particular machine.”
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, agreed that the law needs to be updated.
“Based on the old law, it’s tough to assign accountability because it doesn’t fit the new technology,” Marion said. “I think it’s somewhat ambiguous in the law who’s responsible given the new machines. Ultimately, it was delegated to the vendor, and the board has oversight of the vendor, so ultimately I think it falls at the board’s doorstep.”
Gorbea’s office, in a letter to the board ahead of the meeting, insisted that the Board of Elections was responsible for checking the names during their “logic and accuracy testing,” and provided links to several other states that do so.
“The Rhode Island Board of Elections must improve its logic and accuracy testing,” Gorbea chief of staff Jason Martiesian wrote. “As part of this discussion, we urge you again to conduct an independent audit of this issue so that your logic and accuracy testing conforms to best practices and never allows egregious mistakes like these to slip through again.”
The previous accessible machine used since 2006, the Automark, helped voters with disabilities mark one of the regular paper ballots, so there were no machines that displayed candidate names.
Rapoza revealed during the board meeting that there were also other issues with the ExpressVote ballots, including three ballots that didn’t have the correct headings in Woonsocket and Providence.
While the machines are housed at the Board of Elections, the $3 million contract with ES&S is held by the secretary of state’s office. Gorbea said last week the vendor would be held accountable.
“The priority for our office right now is ensure that both the upcoming primary and general election are accessible to all eligible Rhode Islanders and that voters have the information they need to cast a ballot,” her spokesperson Johnathan Berard said Wednesday. “We are absolutely examining all of our legal and financial recourses in regard to the ES&S contract, taking all of the errors made by them into consideration.”
What happens to the ballots
There were 55 total ballots cast using the ExpressVote machines before the problem was discovered last week, Rapoza told the board. Of those, 26 were in Providence, 26 were in Pawtucket, two were in Central Falls, and one was in Woonsocket.
It is unknown how many of those voters selected the Spanish option on the machine, which was the only one affected. And the ExpressVote machine printed the correct 2022 candidate names on the blank paper after the voter made their selections, making it impossible to determine after the fact which ballots were voted by people who saw the wrong candidate names on the screen.
All 55 of those ballots are considered cast and will be counted, according to the elections board.
Voters were able to review the paper ballots before inserting them into the DS200 scanners to be counted. But it was also revealed at Wednesday’s meeting that those ballots are only being printed from the ExpressVote in English, even if the voter selected Spanish on the screen.
The ACLU of Rhode Island and Common Cause both called it a “clear violation of federal law” which requires Spanish ballots in Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls.
The Board of Elections voted at the meeting to fix the problem for the November election, but not in time for the primary election next Tuesday.
New protocols to be created
ExpressVote machines already started to be delivered last week to hundreds of polling places for the Sept. 13 primary election. Rapoza said the machines now have the accurate candidate names.
In the meantime, the board voted to create new written protocols for the November election to clarify who tests and verifies the candidate names on the ExpressVote machine.
“To just trust this to a vendor is not proper on either our part or the secretary of state’s part,” DeSimone said. He said the testing and the name verification should be done with staff members present from both the Board of Elections and the secretary of state’s office.
Vice-chair Richard Pierce also said the elections board needs to get together with the secretary of state’s office to ensure that the machines are working and accurate before the November election. (Board chair Diane Mederos was not present at the meeting.)
“Although I have some feelings about responsibility, I don’t think that is helpful in this particular case,” Pierce said.
Gorbea’s office said she was pleased with the board’s action.
“Every ballot cast in an election is fundamental to our democracy, and voter confidence in our elections is critical,” said Berard, her spokesperson. “We look forward to collaborating with the Board to ensure that the logic and accuracy testing of the ExpressVote machines is rigorous and thorough.”
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.