Latin America

The Honduran election puzzle: fraud or incompetence?

Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner of the botched Nov 26 election, but observers from the OAS disqualified the results citing "irregularities." Univision News spoke to experts on both sides to try to get to the truth.
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More than a month after the Nov 26 Honduran elections the outcome is still being contested, and the true results may never be known.

Despite serious allegations of fraud by a team of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández the winner on Dec. 17 by a margin of 1.6%, or about 50,000 votes.

While Hernández now seems likely to be sworn in for a second term Jan 27, his government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many people. An opposition Alliance is challenging the election results in court, describing Hernández as an “imposter” and a “dictator.”

The almost farcical Honduran election saga has taken its place in a long list of dubious elections in Latin America, from Venezuela (2017), to Haiti (2000) and Panama (1989), and may have irreparably damaged the OAS’s role as an observer - and preserver - of democracy in the hemisphere.

The debate over what took place is largely a technical one, regarding the way in which the tabulation of votes from each precinct was electronically scanned and transmitted to the election operations center in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

That was compounded by sinister political meddling and an egregious lack of transparency, say experts, citing inexplicable delays in releasing results to the public, as well as a controversial computer server malfunction at a key moment in the vote count.

As a result, the OAS refused to sign off on the election, saying it was "marred by irregularities" that "make it impossible to determine ... the winner."

Hernández’ position was vastly strengthened last week when several governments, including the United States, Canada, Spain and Mexico, recognized the results and offered their congratulations.

To piece together what happened, Univision News spoke to technical experts on both sides of the debate; from the OAS, to the company that handled the computer processing of the vote count, as well as an independent computer engineer who analyzed the results.

Incompetence or fraud?

One thing everyone agrees on is that the count went seriously wrong, creating at the very least the appearance of shocking incompetence. But, establishing if there was any malfeasance is far harder to prove.

The focus of the fraud allegations stem from a dramatic twist of events during the vote count. Initially, the opposition Alliance candidate, Salvador Nasralla, seemed headed for victory with a healthy lead of more than 100,000 votes with more than half the precincts tabulated.

Then something strange happened. A computer glitch, attributed to a system overload, shut down the server that was transmitting results to the tribunal’s public website. By the time it was restored Hernández was closing the gap and would eventually overtake Nasralla.

“Either there was Olympic incompetence, or there was fraud," said Carlos Dada, the award-winning director of El Faro, a news website in neighboring El Salvador, who covered the Honduran election.

In fact, the origins of the current election turmoil dates back months earlier, and was the culmination of a series of highly controversial political machinations by Hernández and the ruling National Party.

After stacking the Supreme Court, Hernández won approval to run for re-election, which had been banned for decades due to Honduras’ history of political corruption and authoritarian misrule. Then the main opposition
Alliance was denied a seat on the four-man Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

To make matters worse, David Matamoros, a reputed ally of Hernández, was appointed to head the TSE. “Even if you can’t prove a technical fraud there was political fraud before the first vote was cast,” said Dada.

In September, the contract awarded to a company, Mapas Soluciones, to process the election results was revoked because of alleged ties to the National Party. It was substituted by a little-known company, Dale Vukanovich, headed by a Peruvian computer systems expert, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Dale, who had audited several previous elections in Honduras.

Despite the last-minute contract change, Dale, 59, an amicable and seemingly straight-laced, internationally accredited auditor, told Univision that his prior auditing experience allowed him to quickly assembly a 150-member team to process the election results.

As president of a Peruvian technology company, iT Soluciona, he said he was also able to call upon his own ready-made software.

In a lengthy interview with Univision in Miami, and several follow up communications by phone and text message, Dale adamantly defended his role in the election, while recognizing the overall process was not perfect.

“It was a correct and transparent process,” he said.

He added: “I want to tell everyone that it is impossible that there was electronic fraud, and it can be demonstrated," he said.

The vote count

The first sign of trouble came right away, after polls closed Nov. 26 - a Sunday. As digitally scanned precinct results arrived electronically from around the country, the Electoral Tribunal delayed publishing them. The race was apparently too close to call, with opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla running neck and neck with Hernández.

“In the operations center we could see the early results coming in, by 8pm, 9pm, it was very close, but then Nasralla began to pull away,” said Dale.

For hours, the Electoral Tribunal declined to publish results. Witnesses accuse Matamoros of phoning Hernández to seek guidance, in violation of his impartial role. Finally, under pressure from international observers, at 1.30am – more than six hours after polls had closed - the Electoral Tribunal announced the first partial results. With almost 60% of the ballots counted, Nasralla held a 5% lead.

Univision tried to speak to Matamoros but was unable to reach him over the holidays. Matamoros has denied any political bias in his handling of the election, which he described to reporters as “the most transparent electoral process ever seen in Honduras.”

When Hondurans woke up Monday morning after the election it looked as though Nasralla had pulled off an upset. With so many votes counted the trend seemed irreversible.

Then the vote count stopped. No more results appeared for hours. Not surprisingly, that raised concerns that something was up.

Dale says the reason for the delay was simple – and out of his hands. “We had processed all the votes available,” he said. “We were waiting for the rest.”

More than one third of the precinct results - mostly in rural areas - could not be transmitted on election night due to lack of electricity or internet coverage at polling stations. Instead, they had to be delivered – in sealed bags - by trucks that drove through the night to reach the capital.

To be sure, this was no surprise to election officials who were fully aware of the technical issues in rural areas. One of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, a large portion of Honduras’ 9.5 million population live in remote rural areas.

However, it created a vulnerability in the security of the ballots which fueled more suspicions, especially considering what happened to the official vote count in the following days.
Astonishingly, more than 12 hours would pass before new votes began to be updated.

“Around 4pm that we started receiving the rural precinct results,” he said.

In fact, barely 80,000 votes were counted that day, according to Dale’s data. That’s compared to 250,000 votes on Tuesday, Nov. 28 and more than 300,000 on Wednesday, Nov. 29.

Gradually Nasralla’s lead shrunk. By Wednesday afternoon, with 82% of the ballot boxes counted, the election tribunal said the two candidates were in a virtual dead heat with Hernández ahead by 40 votes.

Nasralla’s camp erupted, denouncing that the election was being stolen. Street protests broke out across the country, and would claim more than 20 lives in the next two weeks.

Then came another mishap.

The Electoral Tribunal announced a glitch; the computer server used to upload the latest vote count to a public website hosted by Amazon, had been shut down due to a system overload. In the interests of transparency, Dale said election officials on Monday requested that the publication of results be speeded up from every half hour to every five minutes. “Reloading the results every five minutes meant a six-fold increase in data, which overloaded the server,” he said.

“It didn’t crash,” he added. “I shut it down to install a (server) expansion.”

Dale called the event entirely "fortuitous," adding that he had warned officials of the problem earlier in the day after he received an alert that the system was running out of memory space.

Dale says the server was down for six hours – between 6.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. - before results could again begin to be uploaded. He added that the actual vote count continued uninterrupted as the only server affected was the one used to publish results on Amazon.

When it restarted the trend continued to shift dramatically in favor of Hernández, though he would not be declared the winner for another 18 days.

Dale noted that the results were already trending in favor of Hernández before the server went down. He shared several graphic with Univision that appeared to show Hernández gradually closing the gap on the 28 th and 29 th.

The OAS observer team said in its final election report published on Wednesday that the server began to have problems much earlier on the 29th, commencing at 9.47 a.m. that morning, and was out of service for almost nine hours.

Improbable swing

The OAS also noted the “extreme statistical improbability” of the sudden swing in the voting trend from Nasralla to Hernández.

A seven-page official OAS analysis by Georgetown University professor Irfan Nooruddin, reached this conclusion: "There is a marked break point with roughly 68% of votes counted in polling level station turnout rates and concomitant vote shares for the National Party and the opposition Alliance."

He went on: "For this to be plausible, we’d have to believe not only that late-reporting polling stations favored the incumbent but that that they did so by overwhelming margins," he added. "It is consistent with a hypothesis of tampering with the vote tallies that were counted last."

Nooruddin also found that turnout rates on average in the first two thirds of polling stations reporting was 56%, and jumped to an average of 63% in the final third of the data.

Altered images?

At the same time, a group of U.S. computer engineers noticed a huge spike in data that surged after the system was restored. They were so concerned by what they observed, they wrote a 66-page detailed analysis of the election using the name GANAS USA (Group of North American Friends in Software). One of the group spoke to Univision, asking to remain anonymous due to fears for his family in Honduras.

Univision verified his computer engineering credentials but has not been able to check his analysis with other experts, including the OAS or the Honduran electoral tribunal. The GANAS report claimed to have found evidence of sophisticated computer software fraud that it said was not evident to the untrained eye.

Closer examination of high resolution images of the voting tallies revealed some had been digitally altered, according to GANAS. "All the background information was cleared, wiped clean, and on top of that pre-scanned images were inserted," he said.

Dale laughed off such claims as “all in the imagination.” The computer logs for the database were preserved and are available for inspection, he added. He put differences in resolution down to three types of scanners used to transmit the precinct vote tallies

Data preservation

However, the timing of the system failure has aroused suspicion in many quarters, including OAS technicians who observed the count.

"It's not true," a member of the OAS observer mission told Univision News when asked about the preservation of the database logs, adding that the incident was improperly handled and data was erased when the server was restarted.

"The evidence was altered when the server software was re-installed …. The appropriate action would be to preserve it in a forensic format for later analysis," he said.

As a result, it was impossible for the OAS to determine the real causes of the failures, and the impact of the server going down, the OAS concluded.

While the OAS said it was “not able to confirm the origin of the problem,” it warned the server incident was so “severe” it “generated a total change to the information infrastructure.”

Dale says he is baffled by the OAS response, saying he invited the OAS to inspect the database but the offer was never taken up. “All necessary actions were taken to preserve the data and the systems,” he insisted.

Again, the OAS disagreed. "It's not true. The OAS reviewed the database," said the observer mission member, adding that the OAS observers were pressured by Dale’s company "to affirm the integrity of the database,"
despite the failure to follow the correct protocols.

Furthermore, the OAS said the electoral tribunal's own document on Security Policies "does not contain a policy for the preservation of evidence," he said.

In a scathing final report on the election, the OAS team cited numerous concerns over the “poor quality” of the entire electoral system, including violations of the computer system, as well as failure to properly secure ballot boxes.

It highlighted the discovery of sacks of votes lying open, missing votes, as well as recently printed ballots, at an election tribunal facility where the late arriving rural ballots were scanned into the system and all the ballots and precinct tallies were stored.

On Wednesday, the OAS team went as far as alleging that pressure from Honduran authorities got to a point that the mission considered leaving the country before filing it’s the 34-page report.

Fall guy

Dale denied having any political interest in the outcome of the election beyond his contract to process the results, worth $1.8 million, according to a source familiar with the details.

He also expressed his unease at the way the post-electoral controversy was handled by the electoral tribunal, suggesting he was made into the fall guy. “I feel alone in a boat sailing into the unknown,” he said.

But he directed his strongest criticism at the OAS. “This affects me and my reputation and my company,” he said, complaining that due to the OAS report he had received threats and was depicted on social media as a villain.

After meeting in Washington with the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, Dale told Univision that he is considering legal action if the OAS does not “rectify” its report.

In its report, the OAS recommended a new election be held, and requested a Special Envoy be appointed to begin a dialogue with the government and the opposition. (link to letter)

The Honduran government last week emphatically rejected the OAS’ recommendations, accusing the body of interfering in its internal affairs.

With the two sides locked in disagreement it appears hard to see a way out.

“There are no real winners amid this confusion and confrontation,” wrote Jorge Castañeda, the former Mexican foreign minister.

“An unfair and scarcely free election was probably stolen, or at best, tainted to the point that the result cannot be considered reliable. Honduras may be a small and poor country, but the effects of this failure are likely to be far-reaching.”