EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County Council President Ron Heckman said the voting-machine failures that plagued Tuesday's election have to be fixed before 2020, when a presidential race will generate a huge turnout.
"This is an extraordinary situation," Heckman said at the council meeting Thursday. "We're in a swing state in a swing county. The perception is out there (that) we screwed up."
The county paid $2.88 million for new voting machines from Election Systems & Software that failed on Election Day. The ExpressVote XL touch screens were too sensitive, some votes were not recorded electronically and unofficial results were not available until Wednesday, after paper ballots were scanned. Votes for candidates who cross-filed, running on both the Democrat and Republican tickets, were missed or miscounted.
"ES&S let us down, and I let you down, and I'm sorry," County Executive Lamont McClure told the council.
"I respect the fact that you've fallen on the sword for this," Councilman Robert Werner told McClure, referring to an ancient form of ritual suicide.
Werner, the only council member to vote against buying the new machines in May, said the election was an abject failure.
McClure disagreed because backup paper ballots are available.
"I believe the unofficial results are lawful, accurate and fair" and will be certified, he said.
Heckman agreed that the results will stand.
"I have no faith in the paper ballots," council member Margaret Ferraro said. Ferraro was not present but participated via telephone.
Councilman Matthew Dietz pointed out that turnout will be stronger in 2020, lines will be longer and a lot of those voters will be using the machines for the first time.
"We bought a car, and the car didn't work," Councilman William McGee said.
At least four council members – Werner, Kevin Lott, McGee and Tara Zrinski – said the county should try to get its money back.
"You put the county in a very bad position," Lott told Adam Carbullido, senior vice president of ES&S. "We should not have to pay $2.8 million for something that doesn't work."
The county bought the new machines after Pennsylvania required secure voting systems to fend off potential foreign election hacking.
Carbullido said ES&S will do everything it can to find out why the machines failed and make sure they work next time. The company will not be able to see the machines for at least 20 days because they, along with other election material, were impounded.
Heckman said the county has to do as much as it can to educate voters about using the machines before November 2020. He suggested having test runs at senior citizen centers and mailings to voters. That all assumes that ES&S can fix the Northampton County issues.
Council members suggested that ES&S should pay for the cost of voter outreach.
The same voting machines were used elsewhere, including Warren County, without problems, but Werner pointed out three problems with ES&S machines from other states over the years. Carbullido, a 15-year employee of the company, said he could only recall one of the examples.
In other business, two City of Bethlehem police officers stand to make about a $50,000 profit after the council balked at the administration's request to invoke eminent domain to force the acquisition of a property near the government center. The county already owns the other half of the twin home and wants to use the site as a parking lot for handicapped people.
Officers Sam Elias and Michael DiLuzio bought 150 S. Union St. in Easton earlier this year.
"We knew we can't be out working on the streets forever, so we started looking into real estate," Elias said after the meeting.
He and DiLuzio formed Sunblest Holdings, a limited liability corporation, and started to "flip" Easton properties, buying them in foreclosure and selling them to make a quick profit.
Easton's resurgence turned their side business into a success.
"We made money on every property we bought," he said. "Downtown Easton is booming."
Elias said they now are looking to buy properties to use as rentals.
DiLuzio told county council that the LLC bought the property as an investment, not for speculation. Elias said the property is not in great shape, but the county-owned half of the building is in disrepair and has a hole in its roof.
Dietz said he opposed the use of eminent domain, and Councilman John Cusick said the county has enough parking.
McClure said condemning a property for sale is a government power not to be used lightly, but he said the house was brought for a speculative profit, and that the county would pay $50,000. Property records indicate that Sunblest paid $33,045.
Administration officials said the owners had said they would accept $85,000 for the property, well above the $50,000 that was the final county offer until about 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
After council members expressed doubts about the process followed and the need for more parking, McClure went to the podium.
"I'm offering them right now $85,000 for the property," McClure said.
After council put off the vote, McClure said, "We met their price. Their speculation paid off."
Elias said the county's side of events leading to Thursday's meeting was not entirely accurate, but he said the bid price is reasonable. The owners want to give a tenant time to relocate, he said, though county officials said the house appears to be empty and the resident may have moved already.