What now? In the run-up to the most consequential election in modern American history — as counties throughout the U.S. are arming themselves with tamper-proof voting machines — Northampton County proved last week that you don’t need Russian interference to bungle an election, seriously damaging public confidence in the process. No, you can do it all by yourself. In Tuesday’s balloting, Northampton County’s all-new machines were plagued by hypersensitive push-buttons that confused voters, sometimes requiring them to go back and re-hit buttons to correct the machines. But that was just the beginning of the troubles. Incredibly, some of the electronic machines couldn’t handle registering simple “yes-no” voting on judge retentions, and displayed severe undercounts in contests with cross-filed candidates. Most incredibly, one judge candidate, Abe Kassis, ended up with zero votes at the end of the day. Some voters were confused by the paper readout they are asked to inspect before they leave the booth (voters don’t actually get a printout in hand), to make sure the electronic machine got it right. Long story short: Northampton County’s new ExpressVote XL machines failed their first crucial test in Tuesday’s election. The county paid $2.8 million for the voter-verifiable paper trail system, an upgrade required by state law.
The good news is that the paper backup system appears to have worked. When it became evident some poll numbers were unreliable, county officials made the call for an all-nighter, to run the printouts. As a result, the final results weren’t posted until 6:13 a.m. the next day. And breaking with a long-standing tradition of openness in Northampton County, election officials barred Express-Times, Morning Call and WFMZ reporters from witnessing the tabulation, even though representatives of both parties were allowed to watch.
In the end, it appears the county came up with the right numbers. County Executive Lamont McClure said he believes the unofficial paper-reviewed results “are lawful, accurate and fair.” He put the blame on his own shoulders and apologized to the public.
Adam Carbullido, senior vice president with Election Systems & Software, the provider of the machines, apologized as well, and promised to get to the cause of the mess-up. But that will have to wait for weeks; the machines have been impounded by court order. The official certification of the election will come later. Some candidates and the Republican Party might file legal challenges. Those will have to play out, too.
In the meantime, county officials have a pressing decision. Keep the ES&S system — which worked OK in Warren County Tuesday but had some glitches elsewhere — or demand their money back and get another system in time for the April 28 primary election.
Not to put too big a spin on it, but some people think the future of the free world hangs in the balance of the 2020 general election. Next year voter turnout will be twice, perhaps closer to three times, the 27.7 percent participation rate in Northampton County Tuesday. Confusion and long lines caused by balky machines would be inexcusable, knowing what we now know.
Think about it — Northampton County had a flawed electronic election, followed by a reliable (we think) paper count. Isn’t that backwards? Wouldn’t voters be better served by paper ballots on the front end, followed by a state-of-the-art backup?
At Thursday’s county council meeting, four members called for ending the contract with ES&S and demanding a refund. Before cutting the cord, however, it would help to know the source of the errors and whether it’s fixable.
The primary clock is ticking. Apologies won’t cut it if Northampton County limps into the 2020 elections without public confidence in the machines and the counting process.