El Salvador suspends electoral modernization

El Salvador, one of the democracies demanding most attention in the region due to the political violence that has plagued it for years, has decided to suspend the use of technology for the organization of their 2018 elections.  This decision puts in risk the transparency of the vote, scheduled for next March 4th.

According to the country’s Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), this measure is mainly a result of government budget cuts.  According to magistrate Guadalupe Medina, the reduction of $14.116.490 from their expenses has “touched the heart of the electoral process, the nerves of the process”.

Such dramatic statements come from the fact that early TSE reports show this lack of resources will affect key election processes: the modernization of the transmission process, the processing and publication of electoral results, the training of voting officials, and electoral logistics.

TSE magistrate Miguel Ángel Cardoza explained that there was a bid for the purchase of optical vote scanners on the schedule (the machines would also be used for digitizing the election returns) but this plan had to be scrapped due to the lack of funds.

It is interesting that the Salvadorian government chose to sacrifice the modernization of the counting stage of the process. In all recent elections (such as the 2015 election of deputies and mayors, and the 2014 presidential election) problems typical to manual voting, such as numerical inconsistencies and double voting, and failures by the companies chosen for the scanning and transmission of election returns to tallying centres, forced the TSE to delay the announcement of official results for weeks.

Cardoza warns that votes will need to be counted manually again, trusting that the scanning of election results will work this time, and the problems and failures will not be repeated.   He stated that the only resort is to improve the training of the poll staff, but he admitted the resources alloted for this stage were also cut.

Given the particular requirements of a voting process, and good practices for the use of technology, what happened in El Salvador needs to be reviewed.  Risking political stability by skipping vital needs for every election, and by not adopting automated systems that are tailored to said needs, can only make the voters’ will more vulnerable and harm their trust on institutions.

Scandal clouds election preparations in Honduras

Honduras will hold elections in November. The five months remaining will be spent under the shadow cast by the scandal of their organization. Four key companies involved in the process, including Mapa Soluciones, are under investigation for the irregularities in the awarding of several contracts. The scandal also involves the current directive of the Honduran Supreme Electoral Court (TSE).

The National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA) is the organism that has made the case public. Mapa Soluciones and other related companies are under scrutiny; these companies oversee the Preliminary Results Transmission System (Trep) and the Integrated Count and Result Broadcast System (Siede).  The former is in charge of transmitting, via phone, the results of a manual vote count to a tallying centre, while the latter is used to scan and send certified election returns over the Internet.

Both models have been used for several years, Trep since 2009 and Siade since 2012, both with several problems and generating mistrust. However, it is only now that the origin of the contracts subscribed between the TSE and companies like Mapa Soluciones, Geotech, Intelred and Corporación Majo is under the spotlight, since it violates the minimum norms for transparency and legality for the awarding of public contracts.

According to Odir Fernández, member of the CNA, the inquiries show that the owner of Mapa Soluciones, Faustino Reyes Rodríguez, has ties to a political party; additionally, the Trep contract was awarded to him directly just a month after the incorporation of his business, and therefore the company lacked the track record demanded by law.

The National Anti-Corruption Council also stated that Mapa was not enrolled in the State’s service providers list (they were added in 2012) and lacked municipal permits, but the TSJ overlooked these flaws and awarded them the contract, even for the 2013 and 2017 elections.

There is also an element that would, at least, raise eyebrows anywhere else in the globe: two former coordinators and advisers of the Trep system are working for Mapa Soluciones.

These irregularities are repeated with the other companies, and alarms are going off because, according to the CNA, throughout the years and “in several reports, Mapa Soluciones acknowledges the failures in Trep and the data recognition system, yet allege they should not be considered failures, but rather errors that count as useful experience for future improvement”.

Facing these facts, the Chief Magistrate of the TSE, David Matamoros Batson, declared that if the Advisory Council, which includes 10 political parties, concludes that Mapa Soluciones does not meet the requirements, a different company must be engaged.    However, he defended the Tribunal, claiming there has been a media and political narrative that intends to harm the organism and the company itself.

The presidential candidate for the Liberal Party, Luis Zelaya, announced he will take a petition to the TSE to cancel their contract with Mapa, mainly due to the company’s links to the National Party, and the failures registered by the system in the 2009 and 2013 elections.

As shown by the accusations and the findings of the investigation, transparency in electoral matters is precarious in Honduras.  The country faces a decisive moment: they can either purge the management of their public contracts and transform their voting model, or permanently hurt the credibility of electoral authorities, undermining public trust even further.

Irregularities in the count taint Mexican elections

Mexico held elections in six of its states on June 4th.  Regrettably, both the quick count that was used to publish unofficial results and the Preliminary Electoral Results Program (PREP) showed serious problems.  Additionally, the tallying is taking place very slowly and several states are still waiting for results.

The quick count is a statistical procedure to estimate the trend of results after polls close; therefore, the data is unofficial. PREP is the mechanism used to divulge the electoral returns after these have been scanned, and uploaded to a website.

The more negative instances of the day are the states of Coahuila and Mexico, since political actors have abandoned the count altogether and there are accusations of fraud.

In the case of Coahuila, all opposition parties, including PAN, are denouncing irregularities.  This political party abandoned the counting process and announced that is preparing legal action against the vote, hoping for a redo of the election since they estimate some 20% of the ballot boxes were tampered with.  Additionally, the president of the National Electoral Institute (INE), Lorenzo Córdova, admitted that the PREP tallied only 72% of the election returns.

Amidst these failures and suspicion, Gabriela León Farías, chairwoman of the Coahulia Electoral Institute (IEC) reacted, four days after the vote and still with no final results, by stating that “there are no conditions that merit an annulment of the elections”, since every polling station is being counted, vote by vote.

While in Coahulia tensions are mounting, in Mexico state there were situations that show once again the weaknesses of the country’s manual voting procedures.

Four days after the voting, the tallying is still ongoing, while the Mexico State Electoral Institute signed off on the recount of 17% of the polling stations, that is, 3.189 of the 18.605 installed, as a result of the inconsistencies detected.

On the other hand, the political party Morena, whose candidate for the governor’s office, Delfina Gómez Álvarez, is second in the count, has contested the results since she considers the PREP showed anomalies, and all public statements hint at fraud.

The crux of the issue is that Morena states there are inconsistencies between the votes reflected on the returns by the electoral colleges, and those divulged by the PREP.  This situation is ever more relevant when we consider that the difference between the top two candidates for the office is less than 3%.

Failures like the ones in these elections have taken place in Mexico in other occasions.  Every time, authorities promise improvements or maintain that the system works despite the difficulties.

However, this country has a task pending: delivering to their electorate a voting model that is exact, respects the will of the people and is swift.  To achieve this, they must go forward with technology, and not the kind that just renews errors (like PREP), but a robust kind that modernizes the country’s electoral landscape.