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Lehigh Valley Election News

Election 2023: County exec 'livid' at voting machine trouble but confident in accurate count

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — A flaw in Northampton County’s voting machines forced multiple polling places to turn to emergency paper ballots Tuesday morning.

A programming error with the county’s ES&S ExpressVote XL machines caused the names of two state Superior Court judges up for retention to switch places on the printed slip voters look over before submitting their ballots.

Voters were asked to vote "yes" or "no" whether Superior Court judges Jack Panella and Victor P. Stabile should be retained.

According to a spokesperson for ES&S, an employee mistakenly mislabeled the Superior Court races when determining how they would print out on paper backups, swapping Panella’s name with Stabile’s.

Someone who voted the same way in both races wouldn't notice a problem. But if a voter cast a “yes” vote for one of the judges, but a “no” vote for the other, the votes appear to come out flipped, Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said.

According to county Director of Administration Charles Dertinger, digital results the machines recorded were intact and unaffected by the error.

Machine-readable barcodes recording a voter's selections on the paper backups were also unaffected, he said; if election officials need to rely on the paper slips to retrieve election results, they will be able to scan them normally and all will be counted properly.

Panella, a former Northampton County Court judge from Palmer Township, is a Democrat while Stabile is a former chair of the Cumberland County Republican Committee.

McClure characterized the error as relatively minor and stressed all votes will be counted. But he expressed his frustration that the mistake wasn’t caught during pre-election testing.

"I'm livid at the election folks and ES&S,” McClure said.

LehighValleyNews.com staff found poll workers across the county pulled their machines off-line and relied on provisional ballots when the error was discovered in the early hours after voting precincts opened. After the first few reports, county officials texted all locations to keep workers informed, according to a county news release.

But Northampton County Judge Abe Kassis ruled Tuesday morning that the county could continue to use the machines, McClure said.

The order required polling staff to notify voters about the issues before they cast their ballots, and instruct voters to rely on how the machine's screen said they voted, rather than the printed slip.

Problems began early

Voters first noticed the issue around 7:15, Dertinger said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. By 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes after the polls opened, voting machines had already been cast aside in multiple polling places.

The problems appeared widespread, with voters using paper emergency ballots at Bethany Wesleyan Church on Blue Mountain Drive in Cherryville, Lehigh Township.

The same problem was ongoing at College Hill Presbyterian Church on College Hill in Easton and at the Allen Township Fire Company on Howertown Road.

"It's a joke," Sherri Hahn said after using a provisional ballot at the Allen Township Fire Company off Howertown Road. "We don't even have faith in the electoral system, then this happens?"

“I don’t think I’ve used a paper ballot since Nixon!” said another voter who hustled to her car after voting at the firehouse.

Just after 10 a.m., there were no reported problems with voting machines at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem, but at the Charles Chrin Community Center in Palmer Township, officials said machines that were down earlier in the morning were back up.

“We were surprised that there was absolutely nobody [at the Banana Factory],” said Lola Samiian.

“We gave ourselves an hour and it only took 10 minutes,” Stephanie Eliseo said.

Both women are Lehigh University seniors, and were just two of the 25 votes cast at that location.

Election officials for Palmer Middle 1 said there were 60 votes cast. Palmer Middle 2 had 63 votes recorded.

Second problem in five years

This isn’t the first time Northampton County has had issues with the ES&S voting machines.

The county purchased the machines ahead of the 2019 municipal general election as part of a statewide election security update. But in their first action, the county found many of the oversized touchscreens were not properly calibrated, making it tricky to select the desired candidate in some instances.

Later in the evening, election officials discovered a bigger problem. After tallying electronic results from multiple precincts, Kassis – then a county judge candidate – had no votes in his campaign for county judge - a statistical impossibility. Further investigation determined that his electronic votes were not being saved. The election was salvaged because the print receipts correctly recorded the votes, and Kassis went on to win a spot on the bench.

McClure, who advocated for the county purchasing the machines, said Tuesday he was not yet looking to move on from the machines. It’s common for counties to encounter hiccups on Election Day, he said.

He said the problem should have been caught by ES&S or county officials during logic and accuracy testing - a pre-election stress test of the machines and software. But those tests did not split the votes on the Superior Court retention questions - the trials used all “Yes” or all “No” votes, he said.

“Our election officials on this one relatively minor issue failed, and so did ES&S,” he said. “I'm not sure it means you scrap the whole system.”

Under the county system, the county prepares the ballot and sends it to ES&S for programing, McClure said.