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RI POLITICS

R.I. Board of Elections calls for new protocols after ballot problems

New touch-screen ballot machines erroneously displayed outdated information from the 2018 elections, affecting early voters in four Rhode Island cities. The issue has been corrected.

Sign at new Rhode Island Board of Elections headquarters in Johnston, R.I.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — The state Board of Elections on Wednesday voted to create a written protocol for ballot verification after a series of mishaps involving new Spanish-language ballot machines.

The new touch-screen ballot machines for voting in Spanish erroneously displayed some 2018 candidates during this year’s early voting, and Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo’s name was misspelled as “Gonzolo.”

“There needs to be a written protocol so that everyone is aware of it and the public is aware of it, as well,” Board of Elections member Louis A. DeSimone Jr. said Wednesday.

While the Board of Elections, the secretary of state’s office, and a state vendor each have their own protocols, he said, “I think they all need to be documented so the public can see that and give the public some confidence that there is an actual step-by-step protocol.”

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Board members called for involving the secretary of state’s office, the Board of Elections, and the Election Systems & Software vendor in the verification process, and they called for new legislation to reflect the new machines.

Board of Elections executive director Robert Rapoza said the new ExpressVote equipment involved is “brand new to the state of Rhode Island” – arriving in mid-July before being tested and sent to the state’s 39 boards of canvassers for early voting.

Early voting began on Aug. 24, and the first sign of trouble came at 3:26 p.m. Aug. 30 when Providence’s elections administrator, Kathy Placencia, called the Board of Elections to say that poll workers and voters at the Doorley Municipal Building reported seeing Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s name on the ballot while using a new ExpressVote machine, Rapoza told the board.

That set off alarms because Elorza is term-limited and is not running for any office this year. Democratic candidates Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune, and Brett Smiley are running in a Sept. 13 primary to replace Elorza.

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At first, poll workers could not replicate the problem, Rapoza said. But the next day, Joe Vitale, Rhode Island account manager for Election Systems & Software, reported that he had discovered an error in the file for the Spanish version of the Providence mayoral contest, and Placencia reported that another ExpressVote machine was frozen.

Vitale did a review of the files and discovered that the Democratic ballot contained errors in the race for lieutenant governor, and the Republican ballot contained errors in two uncontested races involving congressional candidate Allen R. Waters and state treasurer candidate James L. Lathrop, he said.

Rapoza said all four communities that received Spanish ballots were affected – Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket. ExpressVote machines in those cities were fixed by close of business on Aug. 31, he said. Just 55 votes were cast before the machines were fixed, and those votes were counted, Rapoza told the board.

“The error stemmed from preparation of the election database for early voting. It occurred during a new process we were using for the first time,” Vitale said.

ES&S had created a template based on the 2018 election, and ballot information for each district was entered correctly in English, Vitale said. “However, we failed to update some of the Spanish names for the selection where a voter would vote in Spanish,” he said. “Instead, some of those names did appear from the 2018 election.”

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On Tuesday, the misspelling of Cuervo’s name came to light, and that problem was corrected, Rapoza said. Members of the Secretary of State’s election division on Wednesday also found and fixed incidents where some of the displays showed races in English rather than Spanish.

“ES&S takes full responsibility for this error and apologizes to the secretary of state’s office, the Board of Elections, and affected voters in the state of Rhode Island,” Vitale said. “Going forward, we will put procedures in place to make sure this will never happen again.”

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, attended Wednesday’s meeting and tweeted, “Big takeaway for me is that there was no process in place that could have caught these mistakes. It’s a new technology implementation, which is hard, but there is a lot we could have learned from other states that have had them for years.”

Marion and Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, noted that the printed ballots voters received after using the touchscreen are in English, even if the voter opted to vote in Spanish.

“Not only does this obviously undercut the point of having a bilingual voting process in the first place, it is in clear violation of the federal law that requires this Spanish language option in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket,” they wrote.

The Board of Elections agreed to have printed ballots from Spanish-language voting machines appear in either Spanish or in both Spanish and English, rather than just in English. While there’s not enough time to make that change before the Sept. 13 primary, the board wants the change made before the Nov. 8 general election.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.