Technology, Not Fraud, Will Challenge El Salvador's Elections

Tim Muth


Salvadorans go to the polls in a little more than a week for national elections. Getting results out on a timely basis has historically been challenging for election authorities, who have struggled with implementing new technology. This Sunday’s elections herald more of the same as, for the first time, there will be widespread use of computers at individual voting tables to tally votes. We are also seeing the president, along with his party Nuevas Ideas, which leads by wide margins in the polls, warning of possible election fraud. But delays in getting the results of the elections published will likely result from computer glitches and newly trained users rather than fraud.

I have been an election observer for most of El Salvador’s elections since 2009, and was 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. 

The process for the upcoming elections is complicated. 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, votes can be broken up into fractions if a voter chooses among individual candidates sponsored by the nine separate political parties.

Elections in El Salvador are overseen by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE 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.

Counting ballots is performed at each voting station known as a Junta Receptora de Votos (JRV). The country's voters are divided up approximately 700 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”. In this election, the “acta” will be filled out electronically on a laptop computer, with observers watching on a projected screen, and then copies printed to give to the party vigilantes, and finally 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 manually filled out 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 results made 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 displayed to the public before, hours later, it was caught and corrected. (Persons in the United States 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 those asked to use the new computer systems at individual tables. Not professional election officials, these are people who have either been nominated by the political parties or selected by a lottery of all eligible citizens and required to participate, regardless of aptitude or willingness.

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 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, there were plenty of mistakes, some of which went uncorrected. 

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: 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 be transferred 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 simulation revealed 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 left less than three weeks to address all the identified problems.  

The TSE performed another simulation on Valentine’s Day. The technology head for the TSE was satisfied with how the system performed, and the members of the TSE expressed confidence that the new system would perform as advertised on February 28. The simulation was monitored by various observer groups, members of the press, and representatives of El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman.  

Although there is still the real possibility of human or technology glitches, it should be noted     that this is the system for getting out preliminary results on election night, and 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 errors, tallied, and then the results certified. Paper ballots are maintained as a final check, if needed. 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.

This detailed description of the election process and the possible technology challenges, I believe to be particularly important as President Bukele and his allies have been repeating in social media for months that they believe that election fraud is in the works.  

Bukele claimed as much in a speech to the assembled diplomatic corps in El Salvador.  And, on February 15, he stated to more than a thousand troops, “We don’t trust the TSE for all of its failed simulations,” but the opposition trusts it and fears the will of the people.       

Bukele’s repeated assertions, which have the purpose of undermining public confidence in the TSE, have echoes of former President Trump asserting that the U.S. public could not trust elections which made use of mail-in ballots. The end result of Trump’s attempt to de-legitimize the elections was a mob of fanatics attempting a violent insurrection in the Capitol. If election results in El Salvador are delayed because of technology glitches or simply the complexity of the process, Bukele may well point to the delay as evidence that someone is trying to manipulate the outcome.       

But 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 revealed. The results, heavily watched and monitored, will eventually emerge. So be wary if you hear politicians crying fraud on election night. Instead, wait and hear from the TSE, from the teams of international and national observers, from the election lawyers of the Attorney General’s office, and from the independent press.

Tim Muth practices civil rights law in the United States, where he graduated from Harvard Law School. He is the founder of the website El Salvador Perspectives and has written more than 3000 posts about the news, politics, and culture of El Salvador. Follow him on Twitter @TimMuth.
Tim Muth practices civil rights law in the United States, where he graduated from Harvard Law School. He is the founder of the website El Salvador Perspectives and has written more than 3000 posts about the news, politics, and culture of El Salvador. Follow him on Twitter @TimMuth.

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