House Hearing Throws Serious Doubts into Electronic Vote Counting
SAN JUAN—Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Rep. José “Conny” Varela took center stage on Tuesday in the middle of a public hearing discussing the implementation of electronic voting count machines.
One of the aforementioned machines was featured at the hearing for demonstration purposes. It was one of many that were commissioned from Dominion Voting Systems, the company hired by the State Elections Commission (CEE by its Spanish acronym) in August 2015, at a cost of $38.8 million, to work on the electronic tally of votes in the Puerto Rico primaries and general elections slated for later this year.
Among the security measures that the machines boast is that they require ballots printed on a special paper to properly count the votes. However, during the hearing, Varela carried out an experiment in which he fed the machine a ballot made with some run-of-the-mill paper from his own office. To the surprise of many, the machine accepted it as a valid vote.
Varela spoke with Caribbean Business on Wednesday about the whole incident. “During our preparation for the hearing, my team and I analyzed all of the potential issues we had to delve into, and I got the idea of telling my assistants to obtain one of the special ballots,” he said. “Then we made a copy out of that [in “normal” paper] and we introduced the fake copy into a bunch of ballots that were fed into the machine during the hearing. To everyone’s surprise, the machine read the fake ballot as valid.”
This led the legislator to question the machine’s validity as a secure device. In response, CEE President Liza García explained that the machines that are being used for testing and demonstration purposes “have not yet been properly calibrated with all of the security measures.”
Such a response has prompted concern as to when exactly the CEE will carry out the necessary calibrations in time for the primaries due June 5. “I will be calling the CEE President throughout the week to see which measures they will take on this matter,” Varela said. “I want to see that problem solved right away, so it doesn’t happen again and remove any irregularities out of the process.”
The PDP legislator also questioned the cost to print the special ballots that the machines supposedly require. “When [the House] summoned García and the electoral commissioners at CEE to appear before the hearing, we took for granted that all of the issues pertaining to the financing of the electronic vote count implementation were already solved.
“Now it turns out that the special ballots supposedly need to be printed outside of Puerto Rico, specifically in California, through a company that only employs eight people at the most, and which has charged $4.2 million for 13 million ballots. In 2012, by contrast, only $235,000 were spent in printing 9 million ballots. This is one of the main concerns we still have.”
In all previous instances, companies operating in Puerto Rico were in charge of printing electoral ballots. In this case, though, Dominion recommended four offshore companies, alleging that said firms were properly certified in printing out the special ballots.
“It just so happened that these four companies complied with Dominion’s specifications,” Varela noted. “Moreover, the company that ultimately got the contract only makes photocopies; it doesn’t really print the ballots. That’s something that could have been made here in Puerto Rico.”
When asked why ballot production wasn’t kept on the island, Varela responded: “[The CEE] supposedly released a call for any interested companies, but none of the local firms knew about it. I have requested to the CEE a copy of the published call, as well as the contract that was signed with the company that won the bid. Now it turns out that it wasn’t really a contract, but a purchase order, they say. If one of the parties does not comply with what has been agreed, where does responsibility fall? There are also no records in the Comptroller’s Office regarding the business arrangement, even though the law stipulates that all of the documents must be filed within three days.”
Senior Reporter Dennis Costa contributed to this story.