EASTON, Pa. | Northampton County Council voted Thursday to buy electronic poll books for $311,150, despite opposition from the county election commission and some residents.
"We should have done this a month ago," Registrar of Elections Amy Cozze told the council, when asked if there was more time to consider the purchase.
Ordering and getting the 350 books and then training poll workers to use them will take several weeks, and the April 28 primary election is just 81 days away.
Council President Ronald Heckman said "no viable alternatives" to the iPad-based "e-poll books" were presented in the meetings leading up to the 7-2 vote. The electronic books will replace the paper versions used to sign in voters at polling places.
County Executive Lamont McClure's administration has contended that the electronic books are necessary because of state-imposed changes. Pennsylvania Act 77 allows voters to register within 15 days of an election, down from 30, and Cozze said that narrow window makes printing traditional paper rosters of voters in each precinct impossible.
The addition of "no excuse" absentee ballots is also a complication because of the potential of a resident voting by mail and then showing up at the polls to cast another vote.
Some residents told the council that after the problems Northampton County had with election machines in November, this is not the time to introduce new technology. Others mentioned problems in counting votes in the Iowa Democratic Caucus.
Sandra Pizzolato, a judge of election in Allen Township, spoke in favor of the books, which are used in Lehigh County.
"E-poll books are a necessity," she said because of the shortened registration deadline.
Maudeania Hornik, chairwoman of the election commission, said buying new election technology now is like "putting gasoline on a fire" after problems in the last election. The county could have found a printer for traditional poll books, she said. Her commission voted 4-1 last week against the electronic books.
McClure said Thursday that the election commission's approval is not needed for the purchase from Tenex Software Solutions Inc., a Florida-based company. McClure asked Cozze to rebut what he said were misstatements by Hornik.
Cozze went over problems with printing paper books and dealing with state regulations.
"This is not a toy we wanted for the office," she said.
Cozze said her office needs the tools to handle the higher turnout expected in the 2020 primary and general elections.
Councilman Kerry Myers, the only African American on the nine-member board, said that the election has to be done right but that some of the complaints he heard, such as waiting a few minutes to vote, are minor compared to voter suppression and harassment.
"We have to stop nitpicking and get to the core of the situation," he said. "We have to have an election."
Councilman William McGee said the part-time council has to rely on the administration.
"Let them do their job," he said before the vote.
Heckman said that some residents appear to be seeking something that does not exist: a flawless election.
"We have never had a perfect election in this country," he said, and that dates back to the days of paper ballots.
Heckman, Myers, McGee, Kevin Lott, Lori Vargo Heffner, Tara Zrinski and Margaret Ferraro voted to authorize the administration to buy the e-books. John Cusick and Thomas Giovanni voted no.
After the council meeting, the election commission held a brief meeting. Security of the e-books, which use encrypted Bluetooth technology, was discussed. Again, the impossibility of perfection was raised.
"We are a swing county in a swing state," Hornik said, raising the chances of Northampton being a hacking target.
Commission member Gail Preuninger said seeking absolute guarantees of security may not be possible.
"It's just the world we live in," she said, though Preuninger said the technology appears to be secure and there is a plan to keep the e-books safely stored after elections.
"I feel good about our work," Elections Commission Vice Chairman Alan Brau said before the second meeting, even though the administration did not take the group's advice about the e-books.
"We had a good discussion,” he said. “We are an advisory board, and we did our job. I am proud of the work we did."