The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) began an audit at the State Election Commission (CEE by its Spanish initials) about the handling of early and absentee ballots in the recent general elections, with support from CEE President Francisco Rosado Colomer and the electoral commissioner of the New Progressive Party (NPP), Héctor Joaquín Sánchez.
Meanwhile, the other electoral commissioners—of the Citizen Victory Movement (MVC by its Spanish initials), the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and the Dignity Project (PD by its Spanish initials)—disagreed with the OIG taking over the audit.
At least 174 ballot boxes have not been counted yet
The controversy arose yesterday, shortly before the CEE finished counting the early ballots found this week in the vaults of the Administrative Board of Absentee and Early Voting (Javaa by its Spanish acronym), with the goal to begin the ballot scrutiny today.
Rosado Colomer confirmed that he ordered the OIG to perform an audit, apparently without consulting the dissenting electoral commissioners.
PDP electoral commissioner Nicolás Gautier had called for an investigation of the CEE after denouncing that some electoral units reflect 14,800 state ballots more than the number of legislative and municipal ballots, coming exclusively from early voting.
CEE Justifies Decision
"Originally, the CEE had an internal audit office and it doesn't have it anymore because the resources were assigned to the OIG and, that being, I decided to request the services from the OIG so it would conduct the audit. What's true is that the OIG already accepted the commission and they are taking part in electoral operations," Rosado Colomer said.
The exact number of ballots found inside the boxes is unknown
He explained that the audit is to square the ballots of the Javaa. He stated that hiring a private entity for these purposes would imply a cost for the CEE, whereas the OIG does it for free. “Someone told me that they could argue that it is something electoral. This is an audit of something material, and that affects the electoral well, maybe, but right now it is a square of ballots," he said.
The official said that he supports the audit, but not because there were irregularities in the electoral process. "I believe it isn't a logical conclusion because the audit is not requested by the presidency, but by electoral commissioners in a unanimous vote, and I deliver it. What they are questioning is who I chose to perform it," he affirmed.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked Rosado Colomer if that petition is an admission on his behalf that there were irregular processes. "The answer is no," he replied.
Spokesperson would not specify how many complaints were received
Rosado Colomer insisted that the commissioners did not have to participate in selecting the OIG for the audit.
“I see no reason why they have to participate in something that is an assignment or request to another government agency that is free of charge. It's like, why would I have to bring to them who was chosen to buy the food of the scrutiny. If it were an auction that cost me more than $150,000, then maybe I would see the argument," he said.
OIG "Can't Perform Audits on Electoral Affairs"
For his part, Gautier argued that performing audits in the CEE is an electoral affair, not administrative. "Four commissioners agreed with me in that the OIG cannot perform audits on electoral affairs. The OIG can make an audit of financial affairs related to the commission, but not on electoral affairs. The president ruled against us and in favor of the NPP in that the OIG will carry on that audit," he said.
"So, I will have to decide whether I will take it to court to review that determination. At this moment, I haven't made a decision on that regard," he added.
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Gautier also stated that the audit seeks to balance the early ballots that were printed and those that were used in each of the early voting categories, understood as home voting and mail-in voting.
"Before the turmoil that happened in Java, we all wanted to know how at least the categories of voting against the ballots had been handled, but that is one thing and another to be forced or taken to another government agency to be the one to make the decision whether that was done right or wrong. I think it is highly regular," he said.
"Nobody here knows what they are going to do. In fact, they [the OIG] appeared [yesterday] at Electoral Operations and began to ask questions there, to look for material, and to ask questions concerning electoral issues," Gautier added.
He insisted that the CEE must provide the electoral commissioners with information that it has refused to provide and that is necessary for the audit, for which it understands that the audit began at the wrong time. “We need the number of applications in each of the categories, the number of applications that were recorded, the number of applications that were not recorded, and the number of applications that were notified to the voter that they were not entitled. There is a lot of information to be found before counting the ballots that came out and those that returned," he said.
In fact, MVC electoral commissioner Olvin Valentín filed a legal motion in the Court of First Instance in San Juan for the CEE to present that information before beginning the ballot scrutiny.
"We understand that (those documents) are essential to be able to audit the counting process and the votes received. We are specifically talking about early voting and absentee voting," Valentín said. He also questioned the president's determination and stated that the commissioners' interest in conducting an audit is in acknowledgement of "serious irregularities in the process."
A Call for Consensus
"We do not agree with the selection of who will perform this audit. We understand that commissioners must decide this by consensus and select external entities that are not part of the Executive Branch," Valentín said. He said that entities like the Puerto Rico Society of CPAs (CCPA by its Spanish initials) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) could oversee the audit.
Moreover, Sánchez reiterated that the NPP had requested an audit on Oct. 20, claiming that the CEE had informed the electoral commissioners that the OIG could take over that process.
"We requested that audit to certify and reassure the people of Puerto Rico that this process has been held transparently. Nobody here is accepting that there was an irregular process," he affirmed.
Meanwhile, Inspector General Ivelisse Torres confirmed the beginning of an administrative process concerning the CEE's ballot management.
"Due to confidentiality established in the OIG's own organic law, and to safeguard the neatness of the strict processes under which the office is governed, it is not possible to elaborate on the details of the examination until it is concluded. However, once the process is complete, the results will be disclosed in accordance with the law and regulations," she asserted.