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Northampton County News

Tests of Northampton County voting equipment draw new scrutiny

mail ballot scanner test northampton county elections
Ryan Gaylor
A Northampton County elections worker scans pre-filled test ballots as part of logic and accuracy testing Monday.

EASTON, Pa. — In a typical year, few people show up to watch Northampton County elections workers scan hundreds of pre-filled, pre-counted test ballots, as they do before every vote, county Elections Registrar Chris Commini said.

On Monday, however, logic and accuracy testing of the county’s four mail-in ballot scanners drew a throng by comparison, part of heightened scrutiny in the wake of voting machine trouble last November.

Once workers ran every test ballot through each scanner, representatives from the Northampton County Elections Commission, the county’s Republican and Democratic parties and election-watching nonprofits looked on as officials checked the machine-counted tally against their list of how many votes should have been recorded for each candidate.

Fortunately, everything matched.

Monday’s test was only part of the county’s pre-election gantlet, Commini said. For example, officials already tried scanning folded-up ballots to make sure the machines could process them.

Next week, elections workers will begin the four-day process of testing each ExpressVote XL voting machine set for use in this month’s primary election.

'Not going to be lazy anymore'

While procedures for evaluating the mail-in ballot scanners have not changed significantly since November, the voting machines will be scrutinized more closely, officials said.

“Our logic and accuracy testing, as I described it on Election Day last year, was lazy, and it's not going to be lazy anymore,” county Executive Lamont McClure said.

To start, he said, newly installed county Director of Administration Nicole Pietrzak has worked “to get a handle on the places where we fell short, the things we do well."

Pietrzak's predecessor, Charles Dertinger, resigned soon after last November’s election.

"I voted"
Element 5
The primary election will take place April 23.

County election administrators have “instituted a more rigorous checklist” of accuracy testing, McClure said.

Additionally, this year, officials announced more rigorous training requirements for poll workers.

Commini said a new pattern determining which candidates get a given number of test votes will help find issues like last November’s.

For its part, voting machine company Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which manufactures the ExpressVote XL and the county’s mail-in ballot scanners, has changed some of its procedures for logic and accuracy testing, McClure said.

A representative for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

'Legal fair and accurate'

Last November, an ES&S employee mislabeled retention races for state Superior Court judges Jack Panella and Victor P. Stabile on paper receipts recording a backup copy of a voter’s ballot, swapping their names.

All votes were recorded correctly, county officials said, both digitally and in the machine-readable barcodes at the top of the printout that election officials scan if needed.

But voters, typically asked to confirm that the paper receipt matches their vote, saw their vote recorded under the wrong candidate’s name.

Someone who voted the same way for both judges wouldn’t have noticed the problem.

As a result, all of the county’s polling places briefly switched to using paper emergency ballots. Confusion about the error and its impact persisted for some voters long after machine voting resumed.

A pair of post-election audits last November found that “all of the votes cast on election day were counted accurately,” McClure said, emphasizing that the vote was “legal, fair and accurate.”

'Should have dumped these things'

Still, leaders of the county Republican and Democratic parties submitted a letter to the state Senate, pushing for statewide changes in response to the issues.

“If it comes down to it and there's a dispute about an election, that should be clear. Otherwise it's going to be litigated as to which one.”
Democratic Committee Chairman Matt Munsey

Among their requests, Republican Committee Chairman Glenn Geissinger and Democratic Committee Chairman Matt Munsey asked the senate to clarify whether the machine-readable barcode on a backup ballot or the human-readable text constitutes the official record of someone’s vote.

“If it comes down to it and there's a dispute about an election, that should be clear," Munsey said Monday. "Otherwise it's going to be litigated as to which one.”

Additionally, the letter called on legislators to specifically let voters use a paper ballot instead of a voting machine if they prefer, and to strengthen chain-of-custody requirements for emergency ballots.

“These items are things we both agree are things that would make the election more transparent, would make the process better all the way around,” Geissinger said.

“In today's world, when you can get the Democrats and Republicans to agree on something, I think it's a viable and a valuable thing to look at.”

Unlike his Democratic counterpart, Geissinger has pushed for the county to ditch ES&S voting machines.

“We should have dumped these things," he said. "They've given us too much trouble.

"There are enough systems that are being used effectively that Northampton County could have gone out and said, ‘For the general election of 2024 we're going to use [a new] system.’”

'I have confidence'

Whether issues arise with the election in April, he said, will depend on whether ES&S is “committed to an error-free election” during the logic and accuracy testing process.

Despite recent turbulence, officials expressed confidence Monday that, with all of the additional scrutiny, both the primary and general elections scheduled for this year will go off without a major incident.

“I think they're going to go very smoothly," county Election Commission Vice Chairman Scott Hough said. "I think we have enough eyes on this now.”

Over the past few months, the body has taken a more active role in overseeing county elections, Hough said.

“I have confidence that it will get done right,” he said.

McClure said, “I don't think in all of human history, there's ever been an issue-free election. But what I am fine with saying is that we'll put a legal, fair and accurate election on.”