The Northern Mariana Islands Democratic Party asked the Commonwealth Election Commission yesterday for detailed steps on how ballot boxes for the March 23 special election will be handled and written assurances that they will be handled “properly.”
In a letter to CEC executive director Julita Villagomez, party chair Nola Kileleman Hix said that CNMI laws and regulations require that the ballots should never be left unattended and should always be in the presence of at least two commissioners and observers.
Also, ballot boxes must only be received by the CEC executive director or her designee, Hix said, and must be “sealed and opened in such a fashion to protect the integrity and sanctity of the election process.”
She said they were never able to confirm compliance with these rules at the 2018 November general election.
“Indeed, the CEC failed or refused to provide us with a detailed step-by-step timetable of actions taken and pertinent events following the close of polls on election night,” Hix said.
When asked about the letter, Villagomez said she has not seen it yet and that she is going to read it today, Thursday.
However, in response to one of the issues raised in Hix’s letter, Villagomez said no tabulation machine will be used during the special election because the votes will be manually counted.
On the tabulation and reporting of election results, Hix noted that CNMI election law requires that the CEC report election results at the sub-precinct level. She said this was not done at the Nov. 13 general election.
“It is imperative that votes in the upcoming special election be tabulated and reported by sub-precinct as required by law,” Hix said.
The special election is only for voters of Precinct 3, which has two sub-precincts—Garapan (3-B) and Oleai/San Jose(3-A).
With respect to the handling of absentee ballots, Hix said they expect strict compliance with the procedures of the election law and regulations. She said return envelopes for absentee ballots must first be sorted by the sub-precinct of the absentee voter prior to opening and segregation for counting.
As for early voting, Hix alleged inadequate controls and documentation in the November general election, despite the weeklong process.
“During our review, it was impossible to determine how many persons voted each day in each precinct and sub-precinct,” she said.
As voter rosters are marked to identify each person receiving and casting a ballot, the fact and date of early voting needs to be clearly marked on the roster, Hix said.
She said CEC should maintain a tally sheet indicating the number of early voters (by precinct and sub-precinct) who cast ballots each day, and release a copy of the tally sheet to the public at the close of early voting each day.
On blank ballots, Hix asked that they be informed immediately regarding the number of ballots ordered for the special election, when and how they will be received, and the control procedures to be used to verify the quantity, secure the blank ballots, and control the chain of custody from receipt through the conclusion of the election and announcement of results, along with post-election preservation and safekeeping.
She pointed out that there were 18,979 registered voters in the November general election, and that they learned during their investigation that a total of 23,600 ballots were ordered for that election.
She said the number of ordered ballots, which is nearly 25 percent higher than the number of registered voters, far exceeds what possibly could actually be needed under any realistic election scenario.
“Additionally, the documentation to account for all these ballots was wholly inadequate, and precinct reconciliations were often missing,” Hix said.
Regarding tabulation machines, she said they assume that only one tabulation machine will be required for the special election, given that only one precinct is involved.
“Please identify for us which machine will be used and set a date and time prior to the election for public testing of the operation and accuracy of the machine,” Hix asked Villagomez.
To this date, Hix said, it is not clear how the ballots in the November general election were counted.
She said they cannot overstate the importance for CEC to do “a better job this time around.”
“We expect and look forward to working with you to achieve, an efficient, free, fair, transparent, and honest special election,” Hix told Villagomez.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres set the March 23 special election after the death of representative Francisco D. Dela Cruz last January.
This election has four candidates—former representative Donald Cabrera Barcinas of the Democratic Party, Marco Taisakan Peter of the Republican Party, and independent candidates David Castro Sablan and Mariano DLG Fajardo.