Almost as soon as the polls opened in November, Northampton County was receiving complaints about its new voting machines, with residents and poll workers detailing technological problems that have drawn withering criticism as the county braces for a presidential election next year, newly released documents show.
More than two dozen written complaints were sent to Northampton County’s top officials, with voters’ reporting machines that registered votes for the wrong candidates, refused to accept their selections, and caused long lines and confusion at their precincts.
“The touch screens on these new machines are garbage,” Paul Saunders, a judge of elections in Hanover Township, emailed the county less than an hour after voting began, citing difficulties voters were having.
“This is totally unacceptable now and will be impossible to cope with in 2020,” Saunders said.
Problems with Northampton County’s election have been well-documented since widespread glitches Nov. 5 threw the results into uncertainty for hours after polls closed. This month, the county’s Election Commission Board voted no confidence in the $2.9 million new machines, even as county Executive Lamont McClure’s administration promised lessons learned and defended the returns as legal and accurate.
Emails obtained by The Morning Call offer a further accounting of Election Day issues, which continue to face scrutiny in the lead-up to the presidential primary April 28, when the same machines will be used. The messages were among 473 pages of documents obtained by the newspaper through the Right-to-Know Law, under a request that sought all elections-related communications sent and received Nov. 4-12 by four key officials: McClure, county Administrator Charles Dertinger, acting registrar of elections Amy Hess and administration aide Amy Cozze.
In an interview, McClure said the county intends to stick with the ExpressVote XL voting machines, which produce paper ballots that were used to tally last month’s results. McClure estimated it would cost $3 million to $4 million to replace the system, which he said has now survived a “stress test” that showed its results can be trusted.
That test was on display on election night after it became apparent the machines undercounted the votes in a race for county judge, with one candidate’s totals off by tens of thousands. That prompted an all-night count of the backup ballots the machines generate, which seek to protect voters’ intent and which county officials said correctly captured the returns.
McClure defended the machines even as he criticized their manufacturer, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Nebraska, which has publicly apologized for the problems. The company says its employees failed to properly configure the touch screens and the ballot, and that the mistakes should have been caught during preelection testing.
“ES&S really let us down, not only on Election Day, but leading up to Election Day," McClure said Thursday.
Still, McClure downplayed concerns that voter confidence was damaged last month.
“There’s no evidence that a lot of voters don’t have confidence going forward,” McClure said. “It’s really unfortunate that there are small elements, small minority elements, that are seeking to sow voter mistrust.”
Though County Council members publicly expressed their displeasure with ES&S, they’re at least begrudgingly giving the company a second shot. Councilwoman Lori Vargo Heffner said the county would face a host of challenges to get a new voting system in place for the upcoming primary, and ES&S spelled out the steps to avoid another round of problems. Given the circumstances, she said, it is in the county’s best interest to continue with the machines.
“I’m a solutions-oriented person. What we need to do is get these machines up and running. Let’s fix it. Let’s make it work right,” she said.
The emailed complaints from voters and poll workers came from across the county — from Easton, Nazareth and Bethlehem, to Washington, Moore and Lower Saucon townships. Fifteen of the complaints mentioned touch screens that did not work properly, either by failing to register selections or by highlighting the wrong candidates. Others cited too few machines, long delays and machine-generated paper ballots that were difficult to read.
One Upper Nazareth Township man said it took him 20 minutes to complete six votes, and he called the new system “TERRIBLE!” A Bethlehem woman reported that having voted in 50 elections, she’d never seen anything like it. A Lower Saucon woman worried that amid the problems, older voters may have given up and accidentally voted for the wrong candidates.
“I would like to be assured that my votes were counted,” a Washington Township man wrote the elections office. “A few of the people I voted for, the light would not turn green, so I don’t know if my vote counted.”
Kenneth Kraft, a former county councilman who now works at Northampton County Jail, wrote on election morning that the touch screen would not “pick up my choices no matter what i did." William Leeson, a Bethlehem attorney who serves as the city’s solicitor, shared his impressions with the county that evening, saying his voting machine kept refusing to register three or four of his choices.
“I called the observer to observe and he confirmed the votes could not be cast, no way, no how,” Leeson wrote McClure, later adding: “Voter confusion and delay from learning the new system is one thing but bad machines is another.”
ES&S has said that as much as 30% of the county’s 320 machines were improperly configured, according to preliminary testing. Adam Carbullido, a senior vice president with the company, vowed that the problems will be corrected, saying ES&S plans to go machine by machine to ensure they are working properly before the next election.
“Through thorough investigation and analysis after the Nov. 2019 election, ES&S defined and remedied the issues that occurred in Northampton County,” company spokeswoman Katina Granger said Thursday in a prepared statement. The problems were “caused by human error" and “will be prevented with additional training and quality control processes.”
The emails released to The Morning Call were not all negative. One poll worker in Easton wrote that while it took longer for voters to cast their ballots, some liked how the new machine produced a paper ballot that they could check. Another praised the elections office for its “professionalism and patience” throughout a difficult day.
“I voted this morning and had no problem with the new equipment,” Rick Molchany, Lehigh County’s director of general services, who lives in Lehigh Township, wrote McClure. “I asked the election staff who are at the polling place if they had problems and they said no.”
Martin Romeril, a judge of elections in Bethlehem, offered suggestions for how to improve the ballot and make it easier for voters to make their selections, and said more machines will be needed next year. But in emails to Hess, the county’s acting elections registrar, Romeril also defended how the election went.
“So far, very few problems have been experienced by voters," Romeril wrote that night. “We have counseled patience, and the voters have all left the polling station confident that they were able to cast their ballot as they intended.”
Two days later, election commissioner Maudeania Hornik also reached out to Hess, expressing appreciation for the extra work the elections office had done.
“I’m not interested in meeting and pointing fingers, an error is an error,” Hornik wrote. “That’s just part of life, it’s not perfect, there’s plenty gray.”
On Dec. 19, Hornik joined her colleagues in expressing no confidence in the machines, saying she was “extremely disappointed” in their performance. Her comment came after representatives of the Democratic and Republican county committees urged Northampton County to consider a new system in 2020, saying voter confidence was too badly damaged for a second round of the ExpressVote XL machines.
Despite the bipartisan appeal, the machines are on course to see at least another election. Richard Santee, the solicitor to the Election Commission Board, said for a new system to be purchased, county council and the county executive would also have to be on board. And county council members have indicated they’ll give ES&S another shot in April.
Council President Ron Heckman said a list of logistical realities make that necessary. For the county to have a new system in place for the primary, council would have four months to:
- Reach its own consensus on adopting a new system and notify the Election Commission Board
- Wait for the volunteer board with four new members to research other systems and identify what system to use in future elections
- Find millions of dollars in the budget to buy that system
- Give the McClure administration and a new vendor time to negotiate a contract and ship hundreds of devices to the county
- Update county equipment to interact with the voting system
- Train staff, poll workers and voters on how to use the voting system
- Perform all the routine preparations that take place before an election, including testing the system, readying the ballot and delivering the machines to polling stations
“The plane is already up in the air. We can’t get out now,” Heckman said.
Councilwoman Peg Ferraro said she was appalled by ES&S’s performance last month. Had the company followed its own protocols, none of the problems voters experienced should have occurred, she said.
But Ferraro said that because the failures have been identified, she’s more confident that they won’t happen again. ES&S will be motivated to deliver a smooth election experience, and county officials will not tolerate more mishaps, she said.
If anything, Ferraro wants to double down on the machines by buying more to ensure lines don’t grow too long on Election Day. She also called on the county to step up efforts to familiarize voters with the machines. The machines should be introduced in public areas such as libraries and supermarkets with election staff on hand to explain how they work, she said.
“These machines need to be all over. Have people vote [on pretend ballots] all the time. Just let them vote,” Ferraro said.