The president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in El Salvador, Dora Martínez, said on Tuesday, February 6, in a private meeting with the leaders of political parties, that she suspects that the collapse of the transmission system that provoked the total failure of the preliminary vote count in the presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, February 4, could have been intentionally provoked. She then claimed that she will file a criminal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. In audio recordings of that meeting obtained by El Faro, Martínez added that she finds it “tendentious” that “half of those [ballot boxes] had a security paper [certificate of chain of custody], and the other half no.”
“We do not discard the possibility that they intervened in order for things to occur as they did,” she told the party leaders gathered in the Hilton Hotel in San Salvador, where the TSE has set up its temporary offices for the election. In the audio she did not specify who “they” were. El Faro sought comment from Martínez but received no answer.
Martínez and Ignacio Villagrán, the TSE’s head of information technology, explained a series of technical and logistical failures of the Sunday count and transmission of results, including internet outages in some voting centers; the sparse training of staff to react to the crisis; and the absence of key electoral materials like security paper, to print the acts upon which the votes were to be tallied and transmitted.
A source present in that meeting gave El Faro four audio recordings spanning almost two hours. Not only leaders of the TSE spoke, but also delegates of the parties, including the ruling party Nuevas Ideas, represented by Bukele’s chief of cabinet, Carolina Recinos. The source told El Faro that the audios would show Martínez speaking of an apparent boycott, or, in the source’s words, “an inside job.” Another source present in the meeting confirmed the topics addressed by Martínez.
From the close of the polls until the private meeting past noon on Tuesday, TSE officials offered no public explanations of the failures. At the meeting, Martínez began: “The Tribunal accepts what happened. We do not exclude ourselves from responsibility.” She continued: “Obviously, a report will be filed with the Attorney General so that he investigates that part, because each head [of section] had their assignment, the deputy heads had their directions, and there are things that must be clarified. We will not cover for anybody, nor be blamed for the actions of the [section] heads, who had their obligations and did not meet them.”
These remarks from the TSE president do not elucidate the details of what occurred on Sunday night and early Monday, but they add to the complaints and doubts expressed by political parties and a segment of the public about the trustworthiness of the electoral process. The reproaches began in the first hours of election day, relating to the staffing of the voting stations (JRV, by their initials in Spanish) primarily with members of the governing party, who also took positions assigned to other parties and to non-partisan participants who electoral authorities had officially appointed by raffle.
Later in the day, reports emerged of irregularities including illegal campaigning by Nuevas Ideas at voting centers, errors in the electoral roll used in the diaspora vote, and, after the polls closed at 5pm in El Salvador, official opacity as to the reasons for the failure to project the preliminary results. After 10pm, the system transmitting the preliminary vote count collapsed. Until early Monday, the official website displayed the purported results of 31 percent of the presidential votes, but the ballots supposedly counted plus those reportedly not cast almost doubled the votes displayed.
The next day, Monday, photos began to circulate on social media of packets of ballots in poor shape, which had apparently been opened, stored in unauthorized black plastic bags, or abandoned at voting sites. A number of public reports from those who staffed the JRV stations multiplied and rumors circulated that the ballots themselves had been altered.
In the private meeting on Tuesday, Martínez said on behalf of the Tribunal that “we will find those responsible, because those packets pass through quality control, and it seems tendentious to me that half of them did show the security paper, and the other half no.”
On Wednesday morning El Faro requested that the head of press at the TSE expand on Martínez’s remarks, but after reading the messages he did not respond.
The Tribunal’s first and only post-election press conference thus far was on Monday and lasted just ten minutes. Martínez only said in public that the system had failed, and that “to guarantee the transparency of the results” the magistrates had ordered a recount of 30 percent of presidential ballots (those that were never transmitted) and 100 percent of the legislative ones, which they were altogether unable to process.
In the coming days electoral authorities will also conduct the final review of the presidential votes that were transmitted from the voting centers to the National Election Results Processing Center (CNPRE), a total of 70 percent of the 8,562 acts.
In every election, the Attorney General of the Republic assigns an electoral prosecutor, the chief authority tasked with investigating any infraction of electoral rules. To date, neither Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado nor Electoral Prosecutor Alma Campos have made any statements on the vote-count anomalies in the electoral process.
But on Sunday afternoon Delgado did write on X about issues with the diaspora vote: “We have received reports that, under the operation of INDRA [the IT company contracted to transmit and process the results], voters abroad are not being allowed to exercise their right. I want to be emphatic in reiterating that my Office will charge anyone committing a crime. All the voters who were left waiting and arrived before the polls closed should be allowed to vote. Salvadorans should not pay for the errors committed by this company and by the TSE.”
Delgado was present on Tuesday at TSE headquarters, but he did not address the press. The Tribunal announced on Monday that voting at three centers in the United States would be repeated, but the next day reversed the agreement, asserting that various opposition parties had criticized the legality of the measure.
In the closed-door meeting, Villagrán, the head of IT, explained that part of the count and transmission problem was that the TSE had not distributed enough paper security certificates in order to elaborate the acts. Each security certificate carries a folio number and other elements that guarantee the authenticity of the paper, on which are registered the total number of votes using a voting center laptop. The paper is then scanned and transmitted to the CNPRE for the processing and automatic publication of the preliminary results.
“Unfortunately,” Villagrán continued, “the paper that many of the boxes carried was scarce, and in some of them there was none. Proof of this is the fact that there was mostly enough paper for the transmission of the 6,015 acts processed in the presidential election, so in the case of the legislative election, there were definitely no more supplies left and we only managed to process around 400 acts.”
An executive official with a long tenure at the TSE told El Faro that part of the failure owed to the fact that the logistics of delivering the electoral packets to the voting centers were assigned to the Information Systems Unit (USI), which is directed by Villagrán, without coordinating with the Directorate of Electoral Organization (DOE), generally in charge of logistics.
Calls for annulment
At the private meeting Tuesday, after Martínez and Villagrán spoke, some party representatives mentioned new anomalies detected, including the TSE not credentialing party delegates to be at polling centers.
The TSE is expected to begin the final scrutiny of votes on Wednesday, which consists of reviewing each of the 70 percent of the acts effectively transmitted from JRVs around the country and abroad on Sunday. The remaining 30 percent will be manually counted starting on Thursday, February 8.
The legislative election will be processed in the same fashion, according to the authorities. TSE Magistrate Guillermo Wellman asserted on Tuesday that the final scrutiny and recount would last two weeks.
It is evident that the meeting with the TSE did not dissipate opposition parties’ doubts. Arena requested that the February 4 election be annulled in case of the decision of an extended election in the United States. Pointing to the recent diaspora voting legislation passed by the Nuevas Ideas-dominated Assembly, Carlos García Saade, president of Arena, believes that the TSE —whose independence was called into question just days before the vote by journalistic investigations— tried to manipulate the election so that more diaspora voters would participate: “They [Nuevas Ideas] didn’t have enough votes [to control the next legislature], so they wanted to bring more in from abroad, which would be counted in San Salvador.”
Claudia Ortiz, an opposition legislator and candidate for reelection in San Salvador with the Vamos party, said on Tuesday afternoon that the TSE could not guarantee that the chain of custody of the electoral packets and acts was respected, making room for the annullment of the elections.