Three months before the general elections and the Commonwealth Elections Commission still has not drafted the standard operating procedures on how the polls would be run this November, and could not even provide a timeframe as to when it could get done.
Also, the commission has yet to decide how CNMI voters can vote, given the protocols that need to be in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, the CEC received a total of $1.2 million to run the November election: $600,000 under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, and a $600,000 grant from the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA Act.
The commission will acquire new tabulation machines using the HAVA grant, while the CARES Act funding will be used to get personal protective equipment, or PPEs, and supplies to clean and disinfect polling places, as Gov. Ralph DLG Torres certified in a letter to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in April. It will also be used in the mailing, postage, and the tracking of absentee ballots, as well as upgrading current voting equipment.
Appearing before the House of Representatives last Thursday with the Office of the Public Auditor, CEC officials laid down all their concerns for this election, as well as the previous election, and sought the lawmakers’ assistance in crafting legislation that could possibly extend the ballot deadline for this year’s election.
“We have the election coming up, and we are already short in manpower as it is. So, our attention is shifting toward preparing for the election. We have not drafted the procedure on how to conduct the election. We really base ourselves on the regulation and the law itself,” CEC administrative officer Kayla Igitol said.
OPA’s outstanding concerns
At the meeting, OPA’s Geraldine Tenorio shared some outstanding concerns that the CEC has yet to address, primarily the lack of accountability for the ballots.
In an audit report last January, OPA thinks that CEC’s inability to account for all ballots used throughout the election is “very concerning,” adding that “democracy is built on fair elections, but if basic ballot accountability is missing, the integrity of the election is diminished.”
While OPA clarified that CEC “greatly improved” in terms of how the 2019 Special Election was handled, they also noted that the special election only covered one precinct, and that for them to consider CEC’s actions as sufficient, they need to see it implement a CNMI-wide election.
However, when asked about the 1,600 ballots that went unaccounted for during the 2018 elections, CEC said they do not know what happened to the ballots, and that they cannot comment on it.
Poll workers inefficient?
Basic ballot accountability also boils down to poll workers not knowing where the ballots are.
At the meeting, CEC executive director Julita Villagomez mentioned that during distribution of ballots, poll workers are told about the amount of ballots that are assigned to them, which they should account for, but “there’s a lot of times that, even one ballot, they
CEC gets a list of 30 poll workers from both parties, as well as 30 supervisors, and the commission trains them both prior to an election.
“Some will just disappear because they don’t want to work. …Some of them don’t even read, they cannot read and so they drop out. There’s a lot of times that we will get additional names at the last minute, and this don’t give us enough time to train them,” she said. “A lot of times, they will tell us that they already know because they have been working, but still they are making the same mistakes.”
To resolve the problem, OPA recommended for a test to be drafted, to help weed out the best individuals who could work as poll workers. In addition, CEC is also planning on conducting some role playing, to make it easier for poll workers to understand and implement the job that needs to be done.
“A lot of times, these poll workers…don’t know what they’re doing. [They have] to read up the binder and reconcile [the] ballots. Some of them go in there and they’re just waiting for someone to help them,” Tenorio said.
What to expect on November
For the coming elections, Tenorio said that they recommended the hours for early voting to be extended.
“The laws [are] very straightforward with early voting time—only from 8am to 4pm, and having limited times and only seven days of that early voting, the social distancing—that is something that needs to be done with the Legislature,” she said.
Aside from extending the hours for early voting, the CEC has also been getting requests to extend the deadline for the receipt of absentee ballots, and asked lawmakers for assistance.
Igitol said that in the event that there is a COVID-19 surge in the CNMI, the CEC would need legislation to extend the ballot deadline, as well as an extension for the commission to process the absentee ballots.
OPA’s Tenorio noted that because the laws are restrictive in terms of when to pick up the absentee ballots, their processes would take longer, and that is something for lawmakers to think about in terms of trying to change the law to accommodate some of the new processes.
CEC and OPA both do not recommend an all-mail-in voting, citing the time it would take to process the ballots, as well as concerns about people sharing post office boxes.
“Everybody here on the islands share a P.O. box, and we don’t know who picks up their mail and if that individual will get that ballot. …We’re trying to weed out what can we do to prevent voter fraud, or to ensure that the individual receives their ballot,” Tenorio said.
Torres, at the media briefing Friday, said that he has met with CEC, and that he is aware of the bills that need to be amended and proposed for the coming election. The governor said that they talked about having an information drive for the CEC so people would know what to expect in November.
“There’s a lot of issues that is faced for this election because of COVID-19. …This election, we want to make it as easy, as accessible to our voters, [while] at the same time making sure that the Privacy Act continues to be applied. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said.