EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County's November election problems stemmed from "human error" by the voting machine vendor, according to Election Systems & Software representatives.
ES&S did not set up some of the machines correctly or test their ballot layout, company representatives admitted Tuesday at a county council meeting. On Nov. 5, Election Day, Northampton workers counted the backup paper ballots overnight to provide results. County Executive Lamont McClure has apologized to voters and demanded that ES&S resolve the problems.
"Absolutely unacceptable" was how Adam Carbullido, a vice president of Omaha, Nebraska-based ES&S, described his company's work. Still, the county will be relying on the machines for the spring primary election. About 30% of the machines used last month were not configured properly, Carbullido said. The presentation to the council reflected what was said at a press conference earlier Tuesday.
Voters faced two technical problems. The voting touchscreen was hypersensitive, and after voters submitted their votes for review, the display of the backup paper ballot was poorly lit and hard to read. The problems led to lines, confusion and anger at some polling places.
Meanwhile, electronic votes were not tallied accurately. ES&S was trying a ballot layout that failed, and the votes were not credited to a candidate, but instead as votes for the instructional text on the screen. Those electronic votes were not recorded, instead going into "an abyss," Carbullido said. The ballot design was not tested, he conceded.
"I'm just appalled at that," Councilwoman Margaret Ferraro said after hearing that the $2.88 million ES&S voting system used a screen layout that was not tested in advance.
The machines were impounded until Dec. 5, and ES&S has been working on them since then, Carbullido said.
Even though some votes were not recorded electronically, the paper ballots were, according to ES&S. There were separate paths for that information. One path was errantly directed to the text but not recorded, and the other path for the information went to the paper ballot.
The problems with the screen and layout will be fixed before the spring primary election, Carbullido said.
Tobey Dingbaum of ES&S said the company is also working on better lighting for the backup ballot. All 320 machines will be checked, the two men said.
Councilman Robert Werner, the sole "no" vote against ES&S when the county chose machines earlier this year, was not convinced by Tuesday's presentation. He has suggested that a stylus be used for the touchscreens instead of voters' fingers; Carbullido said that is being considered.
"We don't have any hard, solid proof that (the machines) are going to work (in the spring election),” Werner said. "I'm still not convinced."
Councilwoman Tara Zrinski also expressed concern about the spring election, and whether the county could get its money back if ES&S fails again.
Carbullido said he was not familiar with that aspect of ES&S's contract with Northampton County.
"If there is a problem in 2020, we will be having a whole new discussion," Council President Ronald Heckman said.
While some county residents detailed their problems with the machine before the presentation, Susan Glovas of Forks Township, said they “had minimal problems" at her polling place. Glovas is a judge of elections.
Deborah Hunter of the county Election Commission Board said poll workers need more and better training.
"We don't have enough of them," she said.
In other business, 45-year employee Kevin Dolan thanked the council for its support. Dolan is administrator of the children, youth and family division of the Department of Human Services. He will retire in February.
Other employees of human services spoke to the council to complain about paychecks that they say are low relative to Lehigh County. Mike Coccia and Kezzy Johnson said the children, youth and family caseworkers deal with difficult cases and their office has many vacancies. The shortage will get worse, Johnson said.
"Caseworkers are walking out the door or are planning to," she said.
Heckman said the council will always listen to staff members, but that negotiations must be handled between the caseworkers' union and the administration.
District Attorney-elect Terry Houck asked council to approve Richard Pepper to succeed him as first deputy district attorney at an annual salary of $127,437. Houck will take over next month from John Morganelli, who will become a county judge after 28 years as DA.
Tuesday's meeting was the last for Werner and Councilman Matthew Dietz. The council will hold a reorganization meeting Jan. 6 to determine committee assignments, leadership and desk positions.
The meeting was also for the last for Richard Szulborski to attend as county controller. He said he will focus on his real estate business after his term expires.