NEW BEDFORD (WBSM) — The New Bedford City Solicitor’s Office has completed its investigation into complaints surrounding this year’s presidential primary election in the city that included malfunctioning ballot machines and a lack of Republican ballots at two precincts.

The investigation, conducted by Acting First Assistant City Solicitor Ryan A. Pavao, concluded that there is “sufficient, credible evidence to determine that, although several errors occurred during the execution of the 2024 Presidential Primary Election of Tuesday, March 5, 2024, none of the errors were intentional, substantive, or had any effect on a single vote being able to be cast successfully during the election.”

Pavao determined that all voters affected by the various issues throughout the day were able to return to vote. He also made 14 recommendations that the City Elections Office should put into effect as a result of the investigation.

READ MORE: Ryan Pavao’s Complete Report on the Primary Election Issues

Mayor Jon Mitchell praised the report of Pavao, a former state prosecutor, calling it “really thorough” and “clear.”

“It concludes they did identify a number of mistakes, identified a number of things we could do to fix those mistakes,” he said.

“The other conclusion is that everybody got a chance to vote,” Mitchell said. ““There’s room to make mistakes, less room when it comes to elections, so I think more redundancy is in order, and as we approach the fall we’ll make sure there’s better attention to detail.”

A Lack of Republic Ballots Addressed

The initial complaint that came into WBSM on the morning of March 5 was that Ward 1, Precinct D, located at Vibra Hospital in the city’s North End, started the day without Republican ballots.

Manny DeBrito, Chair of the Board of Election Commissioners, explained to Pavao that each polling location is delivered two bags on the morning of election day – a blue bag that contains the unused ballots, and then a red bag for collecting the marked ballots at the end of the day. Any unused ballots are then returned to the blue bag. Both bags are lockable and arrived at the polling location locked.

DeBrito said he selects the number of ballots that are to be included for each precinct, and then “an election volunteer is responsible for loading the Blue Ballot Bag with the appropriate number of ballots.”

Courtesy City of New Bedford
Courtesy City of New Bedford

“He stated the reason the Vibra Hospital polling place did not have Republican ballots to start was because the election volunteer must have forgotten to load the Republican ballots for that precinct into the Blue Ballot Bag before it was sealed,” Pavao wrote. “I later asked Chairperson DeBrito if the ballots were re-counted after they had been placed in the Blue Ballot Bag before it was sealed, and he told me, ‘No. I trust my people.’”

READ MORE: New Bedford Precinct Starts Election Without Republican Ballots

Pavao suggested that there should be an established “system of redundancy in which the number of ballots loaded into the Blue Ballot Bag is re-counted and/or inspected prior to locking the bags for distribution to the precincts.

The precinct warden for 1D told Pavao poll workers arrived that morning at 6 a.m. but the police officer who had the key for the ballot bag did not arrive until 6:50 a.m. Once the officer arrived, the bags were unlocked and the poll workers realized then that there were no Republican ballots. It was 7 a.m. when they made this realization and then called the Elections Office, and the Republican ballots arrived at the precinct by 7:45 a.m.

“Based on my review of the evidence, an election volunteer inadvertently omitted placing Republican ballots in the precinct’s Blue Ballot Bag which went unnoticed because the ballots are not re-counted or inspected before the bags are locked,” Pavao wrote.

“Second, the late arrival of the New Bedford Police officer with the keys to the election equipment at 6:50 a.m. – ten minutes prior to the polls opening – did not provide poll workers with sufficient lead time to count the ballots, identify the omission, and request resupply prior to opening at 7 a.m.," Pavao wrote.

Another Ward 1 precinct, 1F – located at the Christian Fellowship Center on Church Street – ran out of Republican ballots at around 12:30 p.m. and was without them for about an hour.

READ MORE: Second New Bedford Polling Location Had Issues With Republican Ballots

Pavao asked DeBrito how he determines the number of ballots that should go in each blue bag to start the day.

“He told me he looked at the roll of registered voters for each precinct by political party and used that number with an overage added to each,” Pavao said.

Pavao then wrote that he asked DeBrito why he doesn’t just provide a ballot for each political party in the amount of the total number of registered voters for that precinct.

“He told me the reason they did not do this was because it would fill up the Blue Ballot Bags and make them too heavy for elderly poll workers to carry and/or handle,” Pavao wrote. “Furthermore, he told me that current election law which prevents voters from drawing a ballot from a party from which they are not registered made the extra ballots unnecessary.”

Pavao suggested that bringing in high school or college-age students to assist with delivering the ballot bags on election day would allow for more ballots to be placed in the bags to start the day.

DeBrito explained that election runners will bring more ballots to precincts as they run out. While the Elections Office normally has three runners working to cover the six wards, for the primary they only had two, covering three wards each, due to an anticipated low turnout.

Pavao determined the reason why the precinct ran out of ballots and had to wait for a resupply was because the poll workers who were there (while the precinct warden was at lunch) waited until there were only “three or four” Republican ballots left before calling for more.

“The delay in requesting resupply of ballots was likely the result of a lack of cross-training between poll workers,” Pavao wrote.

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He suggested the Elections Office “establish a protocol for poll workers to automatically call for a resupply of ballots when the number they have on hand reaches a certain level (e.g., 25, 50, or 100),” he wrote. “Ensure cross-training among poll workers so that if the precinct warden is unavailable, other poll workers will know to call for a resupply once that minimum number is reached.”

Pavao talked to precinct wardens from 24 precincts across the city, not just ones who had issues, and multiple other precincts ran out of Republican ballots but requested a resupply with enough time that the precinct never actually ran out.

However, Pavao did suggest the Elections Office could “establish a system such that additional ballots are preemptively run out to each voting precinct by the election runners,” and that every election should always have three runners on duty, regardless of expected turnout.

“The conclusion that most poll workers are older and thus may have physical limitations preventing a greater number of ballots from being initially provided to each precinct is nearsighted and ignores ‘outside-the-box’ alternative solutions, such as seeking to hire younger, more able-bodied poll workers or developing a system for preemptive resupply,” he wrote.

“Reducing the number of election runners due to anticipated low voter turnout and the overreliance on a single individual to address issues that arise during the election contributes to increased delays in correcting problems," he wrote.

There was also an allegation that Precinct 1B at the CareOne Senior Facility had no Republican ballots. Pavao’s investigation determined that to be “unfounded.”

“This Investigator finds that the election materials were dropped off at the wrong location by City custodial workers, likely due to their lack of inclusion in the preelection training. This caused a small delay in ballot counting by poll workers which amounted to a 30 second to one minute delay in voting for one individual. That individual was able to successfully return and cast a Republican ballot without further issue,” Pavao wrote.

Issues With Ballot Machines Jamming or Malfunctioning Addressed

There were also multiple issues with ballot machines running out of power, including 1D being without a functioning machine until 10 a.m., which Pavao’s investigation determined that in most cases was because of “a lack of external electrical power being supplied to the voting machines, causing them to run on battery power which eventually ran out.”

This is because the power supply is difficult to reach on the machines, as noted in the photo below:

Courtesy City of New Bedford
Courtesy City of New Bedford

“The lack of electrical power was due to the machine’s power cord not being properly connected to the power adapter at the back of the machine, which went unnoticed by poll workers,” Pavao wrote.

DeBrito said the battery typically lasts about two hours and even less on older machines that don’t hold as long of a charge.

It was also reported on election day that the problem with the machine at 1D was due to a jam after someone loaded a second auxiliary tray into the machine; Pavao’s investigation determined it was an electrical issue and the trays did not play a part.

The Investigation Revealed an Election Law Violation Did Occur

When machines were inoperable, those who cast ballots placed them in the auxiliary tray in the voting machine. When that was occurring at 1D, poll workers had the police officer unlock the auxiliary tray “to make it easier for elderly voters to place their utilized ballots inside” because it “requires a bit of force to open.” A voter later complained about it being open, so the police officer locked it closed after that.

When ballots are placed in the auxiliary tray, state election law requires those ballots to be stored there until the end of the night, when they will be hand counted. Election workers are not to touch the ballots once they are cast unless assisting a disabled voter with entering them into the machine.

READ MORE: New Bedford Voters Told to Leave Ballots on Chair While Machine Was Down

DeBrito explained to Pavao that it has been his office’s practice to have the police officer on site remove those ballots once the machine is functioning again and feed them through the machine; he provided email correspondence with other election commissioners, some of whom discussed using the same procedure.

Pavao determined that was “inconsistent with current guidance from the state Election Division.”

Contributed Photo
Contributed Photo

However, Pavao’s investigation revealed that in one particular case, at the Boys and Girls Club (Precicnt 4F), the election workers fed those ballots from the auxiliary tray into the machine after it was jammed for about five minutes.

“The later feeding of ballots affected by the jam by poll workers through the voting machine constitutes a violation of current election law, and although had no substantive effect on the election, should not be repeated,” Pavao wrote.

The Report Recommends Better Training Across the Board

Pavao’s report suggested that a majority of the issues that occurred during the presidential primary could be solved with better training ahead of the election.

DeBrito explained that his office does hold two training sessions ahead of the election, and poll workers are required to attend one of them. However, he said he does not bring a ballot machine or other visual aids such as a PowerPoint presentation to the demonstration and does not require custodial staff or police officers to attend the training.

Pavao suggested the Elections Office should “involve City custodial employees and police officers participating in the election in the mandatory preelection training, or, at a minimum, hold a separate training for them regarding their election responsibilities.” He said training sessions for anyone working the election should include visual aids, and should require 100 percent mandated attendance.

He also suggested updating checklists and procedures associated with the election.

Pavao’s investigation showed that “by far the largest source of complaint during the election came from voters’ frustration with not being able to draw a ballot for whichever political party they wished.”

“It should be noted that this is beyond the control of the City and is primarily an issue of state election law,” the report stated. “However, due to the ubiquitous nature of the complaint, the City should look into increasing voter awareness of the issue, perhaps through educational programming or increased community outreach.”

According to a City of New Bedford release, “The City has already begun to implement the recommendations, with additional resources being deployed to the Elections Office. These include the purchase of new high-speed equipment for ballot counting and mailings, additional voting machines, and staffing, some of which are presently pending City Council approval. All together, these investments total $163,000.”

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