Technology, not fraud, will challenge El Salvador's upcoming elections
Salvadorans go to the polls in a little more than two weeks in national elections. Getting results out on a timely basis has historically been challenging for election authorities in the country who have struggled with implementing technology. This year could be more of the same as there will be widespread use of computers at individual voting tables to tally votes for the first time. We are also seeing the president, and his party Nuevas Ideas which leads by wide margins in the polls, warning of possible election fraud. I am writing this piece to explain why delays in getting the results of the elections published will almost certainly be caused by computer glitches and newly trained users rather than any fraud in the process.
The process for the upcoming elections is complicated. The complication starts with El Salvador’s elections themselves. Three different elections are being held on February 28. Salvadorans will elect mayors, deputies to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), and the 84 deputies in the country’s Legislative Assembly. Each voter casts one vote in each election, but for the Legislative Assembly and PARLACEN, their vote can be broken up into fractions if they choose among individual candidates sponsored by the nine separate political parties.
|Voters in Department of San Salvador will choose|
24 legislators from a field of 217 candidates
Elections in El Salvador are overseen by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (“TSE” for its initials in Spanish). The TSE is an independent body whose members are appointed by the leading political parties. In general, the TSE has managed to conduct elections recognized as free and fair in the last two decades. I have been an election observer for most of El Salvador’s elections since 2009, including being the leader of an international observer mission for 2015, 2018 and 2019. While the process can always be improved, the elections I have observed produced results fairly reflecting the votes of the people.
Counting ballots is performed at each voting station known as a Junta Receptora de Votos ("JRV"). The country's voters are divided up approximately 600 per JRV. After the polls close on election day, the cardboard boxes filled with paper ballots are emptied out at each JRV and the votes tallied. The vote counting is handled by the officials for each JRV and watched by a representative ("vigilante") from each political party as well as any independent election observers present and the press.
In previous elections, the process involved counting the ballots and handwriting the results on a document called the “acta”. The acta was a multipart carbonless paper form – the type where you write on the top original and by pressing down firmly as you write, the copies are made on all the sheets underneath. In this election, however, the “acta” will be filled out electronically on a laptop computer, with everyone watching on a projected screen and then copies printed to give to the party vigilantes and the results electronically transmitted to the TSE.
This will be the first time that computers are used at the thousands of individual JRVs throughout the country. In the past, after the acta was filled out manually it was taken to a station in the voting center where actas were scanned and the images transmitted electronically to the headquarters of the TSE. The vote tallies from those images were then entered into the TSE computer system and the result available online.
Unfortunately, the TSE does not have a good track record when it comes to working with technology. In the 2015 elections, the results were not known until well after election day. In 2018, a failure in a script in the voting results software led incorrect information to be displayed to the public on the internet before it was caught and corrected some hours later. (Persons in the US familiar with election fraud conspiracy theories might recognize the company Smartmatic, which was the provider of the election software used by El Salvador in 2018).
An El Faro reporter attended one of the current training sessions for the people who will be asked to use the new computer systems at individual tables. These folks are not professional election officials, instead, they are people who have either been proposed by the political parties, or are people who were selected in a lottery of all eligible citizens and required to participate, regardless of their skills or willingness to do so.
The training session did not necessarily inspire confidence. Especially in rural areas of the country, this could well be the first time that the “secretary” of a JRV has ever sat before a computer and been expected to do data entry. It could also be the first time this person has ever been an election official at a voting table. As participants in the session took turns entering data, mistakes were made and not always caught.
|TSE tech training|
I have had the chance to review the manual prepared by the TSE for the officials at the voting tables. Even though I understand the voting rules in El Salvador quite well, I found this new computerized process difficult to follow in the manual.
Despite those concerns, the data from the voting tables should get entered eventually, even though it may be a slow and laborious process. There is a built-in quality control mechanism in the fact that the work of the JRV secretary will be projected for all to see, and the vigilantes from each party have the incentive to make sure mistakes are not made and still must sign off on the final results from the table.
Next this digitally entered data needs to get from the laptop computer on the voting table to the central servers of the TSE. On February 7, the TSE held a simulation run of the process for transmitting the results from all of the voting centers in the country to the central servers of the TSE, where tallies will be accumulated and displayed for the population as they become available, hopefully on election night.
The simulations revealed some problems. Some drivers got lost delivering computer equipment to voting centers or delivered the wrong package. Some passwords did not work. Some computers could not connect over the data modem. It was not perfect, and there are now less than three weeks to address all the identified problems. The TSE will perform another simulation this weekend.
It should be noted, however, that this is the system for getting out preliminary results on election night. Failures in this system do not imply there is a failure in the election. The results are official only when the actas from all around the country are collected, examined for mistakes and tallied and the results certified. Paper ballots are maintained as a final doublecheck if needed pursuant to a court order. Each process is subject to observation by party observers and the press as well as nonpartisan observers from civil society and international groups. The Attorney General's office also has a team of election process attorneys at voting centers as does the country's Human Rights Ombudsman.
I have gone through this long description of the election process and the possible technology challenges to help people understand what they may be hearing on election night and the days following. This is particularly important because the president and his allies have been repeating for month that they believe that election fraud is in the works. Bukele made this argument as recently as last night in a speech to the assembled diplomatic corps in El Salvador.
A failure to get the election results out immediately does not mean that fraud is being committed. Much more likely is the possibility that the technological challenges faced by the TSE are once again on display. The results, heavily watched and monitored and observed, will eventually emerge. So listen with skepticism if you hear politicians crying fraud on the night of the election. Instead, wait and hear from the TSE, from the teams of international and national observers, from the independent press and others.