The Commonwealth Election Commission’s lack of accountability for the number of ballots received and available, and the lack of accountability on the total ballots used and unused in the last election, remain unresolved, according to the Office of the Public Auditor.
This was one of the items the OPA cited in the report it released last Jan. 15 on CNMI agencies’ implementation of audit recommendations in June 2019.
“CEC’s inability to account for all ballots used throughout the duration of the election is very concerning,” the OPA audit report read. “Democracy is built on fair elections, but if basic ballot accountability is missing, the integrity of the election is diminished. Immediate steps to adopt and implement controls over ballot accountability is necessary to ensure a fair, honest, orderly and impartial election process.”
OPA reported that the lack of a standard process to account for all ballots received prevents CEC from identifying potential electoral fraud or irregularities.
The audit on the 2018 general election revealed that a total of 23,600 ballots were available for distribution, but only 22,000 ballots were ordered by the CEC, as per its contract with the vendor.
No accountability for ballots received and available
To resolve the issues, OPA recommended that CEC adopt a system that would document the chain of custody of the ballot stock, including receipt, control, transfer and distribution of the ballots.
According to the status report, in the 2019 Special Election, CEC did create and adopt a system that documented two “chain of custody forms” for ballot stocks.
This include the ballot inventory sheet that documents the transfer and distribution of the ballots from CEC to the poll workers, and the other for absentee ballots picked up at the post office, which must be signed by the Postmaster, OPA staff, a CEC commissioner, and a CEC Staff.
“Although a form to document the chain of custody of ballot stock was provided to OPA for use in the next election, OPA will keep this recommendation unresolved until OPA can determine CEC’s implementation of this recommendation,” the OPA report stated
Lack of accountability on total ballots used and unused
OPA also recommended for CEC to adopt and implement policies and procedures that would ensure proper documentation of ballots received, distributed, spoiled, and unused, including a supervisory review over ballot accountability.
According to CEC, “a process was implemented during the 2019 special election to meet this recommendation.” The commissioners will, however, still need to meet “to update and formalize the existing policies and procedures on ballot accountability.”
As of OPA’s last interview with the commission in December, CEC has yet to formally adopt and implement these processes within their agency’s regulations.
“The director expressed that CEC does not have operational funds to hold an official board meeting consisting of commissioners from Rota and Tinian. OPA considers this recommendation unresolved and will conduct a follow-up in June 2020,” the OPA status report read.
OPA recommended last year for CEC to provide adequate training, including testing procedures, to ensure that election officials and poll workers carry out their duties and responsibilities properly.
As a response, CEC said that they will continue to provide mandatory training, as well as the election’s official pamphlet, to all election officials and poll workers. Research will also be made to determine whether testing procedures or enhanced trainings are necessary.
While acknowledging the importance of adequate and proper training, CEC said that implementing such changes would require the approval of all commissioners.
“OPA considers the current pamphlet inadequate as it lacks clear guidelines on the handling of ballots cast by absentee voters on election day, as well as provisional ballots. OPA will keep this recommendation unresolved and will conduct a follow-up in June 2020,” the OPA status report read.
The CEC director also said in an interview that OPA did in December that the commission “does not have operational funds to hold an official board meeting consisting of commissioners from Rota and Tinian.”