IN 2018 GENERAL ELECTION

‘CEC couldn’t account for number of ballots’

The Office of the Public Auditor found that the Commonwealth Election Commission could not account for the number of ballots available, used, and unused during the 2018 general election, but also determined that CEC showed improved ballot accountability during the March 23 special election.

OPA described as “very concerning” CEC’s inability to account for all ballots used throughout the duration of the 2018 general election.

OPA, however, commended CEC’s effort to improve their process over ballot accountability during the March 2019 special election.

In CEC’s response to OPA’s findings, CEC executive director Julita Villagomez told Public Auditor Mike Pai last May 31, 2019, that CEC partially agrees and that the ballots were inventoried, but documentation was either misplaced during their relocation to the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center or destroyed by Super Typhoon Yutu.

Regarding the lack of accountability of total ballots used and unused, Villagomez partially agrees and stated they failed to do through inspections of the binders prior to the poll supervisors’ dismissal.

Villagomez blamed this oversight on the mental and physical exhaustion of surviving Super Typhoon Yutu.

Villagomez said the 2018 general election was the most stressful election they had ever experienced.

“CEC staff and election officials were, for the most part, experiencing immediate and long-term hardships as a result of Super Typhoon Yutu,” she said in a letter to Pai.

Villagomez said it is apparent that CEC’s performance was seriously affected by Yutu during the 2018 general election, but it is also evident, through OPA’s own observation, that CEC has made significant improvements in the process of ballot accountability during the March 2019 special election.

Villagomez said CEC values OPA’s findings and recommendations and that its next action plan is to work with the Office of the Attorney General and the CNMI Legislature to propose an amendment to update the election laws, as they continue to seek methods and best practices to maintain ballot accountability.

Acting public auditor David Blake informed Villagomez last Tuesday, June 18, of the results of their inspection of CEC’s accountability of ballots during the 2018 general election.

OPA made the inspection last Oct. 19 to determine if CEC can account for all ballots in the general election.

OPA found that although CEC provided documentation regarding the total ballots ordered, CEC could not account for the total number of blank ballots received from the vendor.

In addition, OPA said CEC could not properly account for total ballots used and unused throughout the duration of the 2018 general election because ballot accountability forms were not provided for three polling sites and for the ballots handed to Rota and Tinian commissioners for over-the-counter requests.

OPA said CEC should have accounted for the number of blank ballots received from the vendor and available for the election.

However, OPA said it finds that CEC did not have a standard process to verify and document the number of ballots ordered against the number of ballots received, less any spoiled ballots, and finally available for use in the 2018 general election.

“The lack of a standard process to account for all ballots received prevents CEC from identifying potential electoral fraud or irregularities,” OPA said.

OPA said the documents provided for OPA’s review indicated a total of 23,600 ballots available for distribution.

OPA said the contract between CEC and the vendor showed that CEC ordered a total of 22,000 ballots.

OPA said CEC could not provide documentation to show the excess number received.

According to CEC, an initial quantity of 1,600 blank ballots were hand-carried to the CNMI in preparation for absentee requests and the Northern Islands early voting.

OPA found that CEC did not have an accounting of ballots used during the early voting period.

Therefore, OPA said, CEC could not provide documentation showing the number of ballots available, used, and unused during the early voting period.

In their review of documents pertaining to the 2019 special election, OPA found that CEC accounted for all ballots received and available for use in that election.

OPA recommends that CEC adopt a system that documents the chain of custody of the ballot stock, including receipt, control, transfer, and distribution of the ballots.

OPA recommends that CEC adopt and implement policies and procedures to ensure proper documentation of ballots received, distributed, spoiled and unused; and supervisory review over ballot accountability.

OPA also recommends CEC to provide adequate training, including testing procedures, to ensure that election officials and poll workers properly carry or their duties and responsibilities.

In addition, OPA suggests that CEC review legislation and propose amendments to the Legislature, if necessary.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com
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