As more ballot errors emerge, RI Board of Elections wants clarity around testing

PROVIDENCE —  As more ballot errors came to light, the state Board of Elections on Wednesday voted to establish a protocol that leaves no doubt about the role of the secretary of state in the "ballot verification" process.

The frustration in the room Wednesday was palpable following the public release by  Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office of a letter laying the blame for incorrect Spanish-language ballots exclusively at the feet of the company that supplied the state's new ExpressVote machines in July and the state Board of Elections.


A September 3 letter from Robert Rapoza, the executive director of the elections board to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza put the blame at her feet.

"We share your frustration regarding this error," Rapoza wrote Elorza. "However, we want to clarify that per Rhode Island General is the Secretary of State’s responsibility for ballot design, accuracy, programming and proofing.

The Board of Elections has a different responsibility, he wrote: "confirming the logic and accuracy of the cartridge that tabulates the ballots."

As the finger-pointing continued, a spokesman for Gorbea told The Journal the secretary of state decided, on September 2, to withhold a scheduled payment from the company that provided the new "ballot marking devices" -  Election Systems & Software -  at the center of the controversy.

The spokesman, JOhnathan Berard, said the secretary of state will continue to do so "while we examine our legal options regarding the errors made by ES&S." The amoutn withheld so far:  $25,585 for hardware maintenance and support and $139,518 for equipment lease, he said.

"This is a serious issue. We all know that," said elections board member Jennifer Johnson.

"There has been a lot of blame and stuff blowing around in the press," she said. "I think we are all interested in moving forward and assuring the voters that we are working together ... It is all of our collective responsibility to ensure elections integrity and voter access."

"Although I have some feelings about responsibility, I don't think that is helpful in this particular case," added the vice-chairman, Richard Pierce.

"I think it is clear some errors were made," he said.

He suggested the two agencies with roles in the election – the secretary of state and the Board of Elections – "plan to get together as a team and with [someone with] Spanish-speaking ability involved in the process, go through the workings of this machine and make sure that the ballots correctly report the situation."

Moving forward, elections board member Louis DeSimone proposed that representatives from the board, the secretary of state's office and the vendor should all be present at the testing of ballot machines "for checks and balances."

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Spanish-language ballot errors

The decision followed the latest in a series of reports about problems with the lists of candidates presented to voters using the state's newly purchased ExpressVote machines for early voting, especially those viewing a Spanish-language ballot.

The 2022 primary line-ups included the names of 2018 candidates running for state treasurer, lieutenant governor, Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District seat and mayor of Providence, including Elorza, who is not on the ballot this year.

As many as 55 of these botched ballots were identified in the four cities where the Spanish-language ballots were provided: Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

More RI ballot issues

The latest: botched headings over the names of candidates for a House seat in Woonsocket and state and ward committees in Woonsocket and Providence. For example: "the contest title for Representative in General Assembly District 50 did not include the District number on the ExpressVote onscreen ballot," according to an elections board spokesman.

Among the issues discussed Wednesday: state law does not spell out responsibility for checking the accuracy of the names being uploaded to a touch-screen machine, as is the case now for the first time.

State law says, in part: "The secretary of state shall prepare the layout and format of the computer ballot in conjunction with the voting equipment vendor under contract with the state.'

The law then says: "The state board, in conjunction with the voter equipment vendor under contract with the state, shall be responsible for the testing of the programmed memory cartridge, the testing of each unit for logic and accuracy."

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How did the incorrect names end up on Spanish-language ballots?

As for how it happened, Joe Vitale, a representative of Election Systems & Software, the company that provided the new machines in July, gave a somewhat complicated — and apologetic — explanation for the errors on the Spanish-language version of the ballots on the new "ballot marking devices."

In effect, he said, a 2018 "template" was used for testing, "however we failed to update some of the Spanish names for the selection where a voter would vote in Spanish. Instead some of those names did appear from the 2018 election."

"Once discovered and identified" – eight days into the 20-day early-voting period – Vitale said, "the error was corrected by me performing a manual update to the database, burning new USB sticks and ... along with a board member, we immediately went out to the early voting sites and replaced those USB sticks."

Gorbea spokesman JOhnathan Berard told The Journal the secretary of state's office is for now withholding payment to ES&S.

"The total cost for the new contract that includes the ExpressVotes will be just over $3 million total over the next five years," he said..

"The priority right now is to ensure that the upcoming primary and general election is accessible to all eligible Rhode Islanders and that voters have the information they need to vote.

"That said, on Friday, September 2, our office decided to withhold a scheduled payment to ES&S after learning of the issue. We will continue to withhold payment while we examine our legal options regarding the errors made by ES&S."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Ballot errors in Rhode Island, Board of Elections seeks clear roles