Murphy’s Law dominates election
Provisions of the elections code are strictly followed in every Pennsylvania election. Unfortunately for Northampton County elections officials, another law raised its ugly head during the Nov. 5 municipal election. Murphy’s Law — the epigram that anything that can go wrong will go wrong — was in full force during the county’s roll-out of a brand-new voting system called the Express Vote XL.
In addition to hypersensitive screens, the touch screens improperly computed results in the judicial races. After the polls closed, the printed results from the flash drives inside each machine had candidate Democrat Abe Kassis behind Republican Vic Scomillio with fewer than 100 votes. The voter-verifiable paper ballots, however, say Kassis actually won one of the two judgeships decided. This vote is currently being canvassed, which is a close re-examination of the results in every precinct.
Once results are certified, a legal challenge is possible. Republicans have already obtained a court order impounding all voting machines and ballots.
How did we get here?
Prior to Nov. 5, Northampton County was using a stand-alone touch screen to tabulate votes. But as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Pennsylvania’s Department of State directed all 67 counties to select new voting systems with a voter-verifiable paper trail, making post-election audits more accurate. The directive added all systems must be in place before the 2020 primary. The statewide cost for this thus-far-unfunded mandate change is estimated at $125 million to $150 million.
Only 46 counties, including Lehigh and Northampton, have introduced their new systems. Lehigh County opted for a paper ballot system. Northampton County chose the Express Vote XL.
What is the Express Vote XL?
This is a hybrid system combining the convenience of a 32-inch touch screen with the added component of a voter-verifiable paper trail. It has been certified on both federal and state levels. In Pennsylvania, it has been certified twice. It cost Northampton County taxpayers $2.9 million, though the state has promised a 60-percent reimbursement.
This system was the choice of a majority of 40 poll workers who reviewed four competing systems. County Executive Lamont McClure endorsed it, and a 3-2 majority of the elections commission agreed.
Northampton County Council approved the purchase in May, after waiting to see how the system worked in Delaware and hearing from its elections officials. Only one council member, Bob Werner, was opposed.
County’s voter outreach, training and testing
Northampton County’s elections judges and machine operators underwent two hours of mandatory training on the Express Vote XL. In addition, the county demonstrated the new system at numerous venues, from four different senior centers to the Blue Valley Farm Show. Once the ballot was prepared, “logic and accuracy” testing was done on each machine before being put in use. This is done to ensure software has been set up properly to accurately count the specific ballots for that election.
“Your vote will be counted,” McClure assured voters just days before the election.
Once polls opened 6 a.m., complaints began to pour in. Two of them came from Judges Michael Koury and Craig Dally, both of whom were up for retention. They complained voters were unable to vote for or against them. Some of the machines were very sensitive because they are activated by a laser, as opposed to actual touch.
A court order was issued, instructing elections judges and machine operators to advise voters to seek help if they have problems making a choice. A second court order issued later that day had even more detailed instructions.
About 30 voters were asked what they thought about the new system after they voted. Some complained it is difficult to see the paper ballot, but most liked to know it was there.
“That’s a lot better than politicians doing their thing,” one voter said.
“I never really had a problem with the old system,” another added.
Some did complain about sensitivity but were able to make their selections.
As it happens, Koury and Dally were overwhelmingly retained.
The real problem started when the polls closed and the machines began printing their results. The most glaring problem was that Kassis had no votes at all when the first two precincts, both from heavily Democratic Easton, reported. As the night progressed, this problem was magnified throughout the rest of the county. It also appeared in other races.
At this point, McClure sought and received permission from the Department of State to tabulate the back-up paper ballots. The scanning went on all night long until about 5:30 a.m., when the paper ballots showed Kassis had actually won one of the two judicial vacancies.
McClure, manufacturer apologize
In a news conference the following day, both McClure and the Express Vote XL manufacturer apologized.
“This is one of my responsibilities,” McClure said. “To the voters yesterday who had difficulty casting their ballots, I am sorry. We will do better. To the candidates, their families and supporters who were unnecessarily made anxious by this process, I am sorry.”
Electronic Systems & Software Executive Vice President Adam Carbullido also apologized to Northampton County voters and officials. He said his company is committed to ensuring this never occurs again. He expressed “a high degree of confidence” in the tabulation of the paper ballots. But amazingly, “we don’t know the root cause of the issue,” he said.
He won’t know until he has access to the impounded voting machines.
Any good news?
The silver lining to the dark clouds on Election Day is there was a voter-verifiable paper trail. This factor appears to have saved the day. Although a challenge is being mulled by Republicans, there is a strong public interest in the finality of elections. Moreover, the burden would be on challengers to prove the paper ballot back-up is inaccurate.