D.C. elections board acknowledges error on Spanish-language electronic ballots

These Spanish-language instructions shown on the District's electronic voting machines are misleading, elections officials acknowledged Tuesday. (Edgardo Guerrero)
These Spanish-language instructions shown on the District’s electronic voting machines are misleading, elections officials acknowledged Tuesday. (Edgardo Guerrero)

Updated 3:40 p.m. with board statement

When Edgardo Guerrero went to cast his vote Monday, at One Judiciary Square during the first day of early balloting, the electronic machine he was using presented him with a puzzling message. The 47-year-old Bloomingdale resident had opted for a Spanish-language ballot, and as he prepared to finalize his choices, he was informed, “¡Boleta incompleta! No ha seleccionado opción alguna en ninguna contienda.

Translation: “Ballot incomplete: You haven’t selected an option in any of the contests.”

Problem was, Guerrero had made choices in most of the races on the ballot, though he did leave at least one office blank. He reviewed his ballot, tried submitting his choices again, and was given the same message. After inquiring with poll workers, he said, he submitted his ballot.

But Guerrero remained wary that his vote had been properly counted, and he asked to have his electronic vote cancelled and to be given a paper ballot. Elections officials on the scene, he said, told him that would not be possible.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Board of Elections said that Guerrero’s vote was properly counted but acknowledged that the Spanish-language instructions that had confused him were indeed incorrect.

Tamara Robinson, a spokeswoman for the board, said “unfortunately there was a misinterpretation” with the Spanish-language electronic ballots. Also unfortunate, she said, is that it is too late to reprogram the city’s electronic voting machines to fix the error before the primary concludes on April 1.

Instead, Robinson said, new instructions will be posted and provided to Spanish-language voters who choose to use the electronic machines, and workers will be trained to handle questions about the faulty language. Those voters, she added, are “more than welcome to use a paper ballot.”

Robinson said she expected the new instructions to be posted Tuesday, as soon as the revised translation is vetted. “We will make sure this does not happen again,” she said.

Guerrero, who is also a candidate for a D.C. Democratic State Committee seat, said he was pleased that officials were taking action but said it was “disrespectful” that the oversight had occurred. He said he has also lodged complaints with the D.C. Council and the city’s Office of Human Rights. A more thorough response, he said, would include news releases and widespread public service announcements.

“My point is, if this had happened in the Anglo community, there would have been an uproar,” he said Tuesday. “We come from many countries where this happens all the time, where people steal elections. … This is not a little thing.”

Update, 3:40 p.m.: Clifford Tatum, the board’s executive director, issued the following statement:

On Monday, March 17, 2014, the Board learned of an incorrect Spanish-language translation on its touch screen voting machines. The instruction implies that incomplete ballots cast in Spanish would not be counted. This instruction is incorrect.

Upon examining the issue, we immediately contacted Election Systems & Software, which produces and supplies the iVotronic voting machines for DCBOE. We determined that we cannot immediately reprogram the iVotronics, as doing so would disrupt Early Voting and Election Day on April 1. However, we are working to ensure the problem will be corrected in time for the November 4 General Election.

We understand the concerns of our Spanish-speaking voters and assure them that all ballots will be tabulated.

All voters should know that we conducted extensive logic and accuracy testing of our voting machines beginning February 18, 2014, and we are confident that all votes are being counted despite yesterday’s error.

In the interim, DCBOE has posted special instructions in Spanish next to each voting machine and at prominent locations in and around the Early Voting Center at One Judiciary Square. Spanish-speaking voters who do not feel comfortable using the touch screens are more than welcome to use paper ballots at this location during Early Voting and at their polling place on Election Day.

Again, we want to reiterate that all votes will be counted regardless of the method utilized, and we apologize for any confusion this situation has caused.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · March 18