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Lehigh Valley Election News

Northampton County certifies election results despite outcry over election integrity

Northampton County 2023 election certification
Tom Shortell
More than 100 people filled the Northampton County Courthouse's cafeteria Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023 for the Northampton County Election Commission's post-election meeting. The commission voted 4-1 to certify election results despite hours of public comment urging them not to.

EASTON, Pa. — The Northampton County Elections Commission certified this month's election results Tuesday night despite dozens of residents calling upon them not to stand by the results due to widespread voting irregularities.

More than 100 people filed through the Northampton County Courthouse's cafeteria over a four-hour meeting. Most of them were local voters who expressed their widespread distrust of the county's voting machines. But despite the acknowledged problems and their second failure in five elections, Election Commission Solicitor Richard Santee told the commission they had no choice.

No candidates in any of the races appealed the results of the Nov. 7 election, Santee said. With no candidates raising questions about the outcome of their races, he said, the commission had a duty.

"Certification by the board must be done. There is no discretion," Santee said.

The board voted 4-1 to certify the election, with only Republican Scott Hough opposing.

"I just could not, with a common sense good conscience, sign off on something I was unsure of," he said, saying he still had many questions about the election process.

Systematic failure

On Election Day, poll workers across the region discovered the county's ExpressVote XL voting machines were flipping votes on a paper summary printout produced by the machines. They moved to emergency paper ballots while the county raced to uncover the problem.

Election officials and ES&S, the voting machine vendor, later determined an ES&S programmer had mislabeled the retention questions for two state Superior Court judges. As a result, it appeared from the printouts that votes were swapped between the two judges, though officials say all votes were recorded properly in the machines. The problem should have been caught during pre-election testing, but the county staff didn't apply vigorous enough testing, county Executive Lamont McClure said.

Both Superior Court judges were retained by overwhelming margins across Pennsylvania. Even if all 218,902 registered voters in Northampton County voted against retaining them, it would not have altered the outcome.

At the recommendation of the Pennsylvania State Department on Election Day, Northampton County Judge Abe Kassis ordered voting to continue on the ExpressVote XLs. While the voting machines printed the Superior Court votes incorrectly on paper, the digital record was accurate, according to election officials. McClure has expressed confidence that everyone who cast a ballot on Election Day had their vote counted and counted accurately.

But for over two-and-a-half hours Tuesday, voter after voter spoke about the problems they encountered at the polls and how the ordered fix fell short of resolving problems. One woman said her Forks Township polling place locked its doors for an hour and a half, which would be a violation of federal law if true. McClure said he was made aware of the claim Tuesday. If it's true, poll workers there acted without the approval of county election officials, he said.

Glenn Geissinger, chair of the Northampton County Republican Committee, urged the commission to go beyond just declining to certify election results. The commission needed to conduct an investigation into the election failures and refuse to use the ExpressVote XLs in another election. While the McClure administration has ignored votes from the commission on how to conduct elections in the past, Geissinger told them they have the authority to ensure election integrity.

"The home rule charter, the executive and nobody else can take that away from you," Geissinger said.

After the meeting, a frustrated Geissinger argued Santee gave the commission poor legal advice about certifying the results. The Republican committee and its legal advisers will meet Wednesday morning to discuss their legal options, he said. The committee has collected more than 100 affidavits of Northampton County voters who experienced some form of election irregularity, he said.

"I would not disenfranchise 70,000 other people who voted."
Northampton County Election Commission Chair Sharon Gavin-Levy

Despite the high emotions in the room, the meeting remained civil. Several Lower Saucon Township residents begged the commission to certify the results despite the problems. The township saw the highest turnout in the county as residents voted in droves to push out the township council's Republican majority due to the controversy about expanding the Bethlehem landfill. Several speakers recounted their hard work going door-to-door and testifying in legal proceedings to support their candidates.

"Now that this may be thrown out because of this? Do you know how many hours people have spent in this courtroom opposing this?" one man said, drawing sympathetic nods from the room.

After the meeting, Commission Chair Sharon Gavin-Levy said it's abundantly clear the county needs to do better administering its elections. But she said she could not vote against certification when no outcomes appeared to be in doubt.

"I would not disenfranchise 70,000 other people who voted. To not certify would have meant those other people who did vote, that their vote would not count. So I was comfortable signing," she said.

Unclear future for the election machines

Commissioners did not take any formal steps to switch the type of voting machines used in Northampton County. Commissioners acknowledged they did not have the time to get to the topic Tuesday night and requested another meeting be scheduled this year. The commissioners' terms end this year, limiting their ability to make systemic election changes ahead of the 2024 primary even if they wanted to.

Instead, commissioners received an apology from Adam Carbullido, a representative of ES&S. He explained one of the company's employees programmed the machines incorrectly, causing the paper printouts to be mislabeled. Before Election Day, all of the county's machines went through a Logistics and Accuracy Test to ensure their accuracy. The tests had been approved by the state, Carbullido noted.

Moving forward, ES&S plans to compare a master copy of the election ballot with the printouts created by the machines. The practice would have uncovered the two judges' names appearing in the wrong order and allowing the county to correct the error, he said. ES&S plans to adopt this practice with all of its customers, not just Northampton County, he said.

"I am confident that working with the county and implementing these procedures, we can prevent these types of mistakes from occurring again," Carbullido said.

But before he spoke, he heard hours of comments from frustrated voters who demanded the county use different machines before next year's 2024 presidential race. Many people said voters who turned to emergency paper ballots were more confident that their ballots would be accurately counted. Several noted that Lehigh County, which uses a system where voters mark paper ballots that are then scanned by tabulators, has not experienced the same problems Northampton County has.

"Why do you trust these machines? Why can’t we go to paper ballots? For all the problems we’ve had, I don’t understand why we don’t go to paper ballots," asked county resident Theresa Hess.

The McClure administration has balked at switching to a new voting system, saying it would be unwise to adopt major changes ahead of the 2024 election. Northampton County, one of the most competitive in the nation, will have campaigns for president, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House on the ballot.

"There's a learning curve with a new system. Sometimes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't," McClure said last week during LehighValleyNews.com's "Beyond The Ballot" special.

Instead, Registrar Christopher Commini said the county will be requiring all its poll workers and judges of elections to undergo training ahead of the 2024 elections. In the past, the county has only required new poll workers and judges of elections to undergo training, he said.

He also said the county will be sending far more emergency paper ballots to polling places. Standard practice has been to send a handful of paper ballots in case a single machine went down. But when every machine in the county couldn't be used, poll workers were left in impossible situations. In instances where a copy machine was at the polling place, workers were encouraged to photocopy blank ballots to ensure there would be enough to meet voter demand.