Northampton County Courthouse

EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County should get back the $2.88 million it spent on voting machines, residents told County Council on Thursday night.

The ExpressVote XL machines used for the Nov. 5 election had touch screens that were too sensitive, did not record all votes electronically, and the backup paper ballots that were displayed to voters to confirm their choices were hard to read. The county bought machines from Election Systems & Software after Pennsylvania required voting machines that would thwart hacking and provide a paper backup to electronic tallies.

"We really need to get our money back," Gail Preuninger of Bethlehem Township said.

Deborah Hunter, who served on the county's election commission and opposed selection of Election Systems & Software's machines, said the vendor broke its contract.

"I will not use this machine," said Roger Dreisbach-Williams of Williams Township.

He said he will vote via a paper ballot next time, perhaps as an absentee voter.

County Executive Lamont McClure took responsibility for the election at the council's Nov. 7 meeting. He reiterated Thursday that the county is holding the vendor accountable. McClure said the system worked, despite the problems, because of the paper backup ballots.

"We had a legal, fair and accurate election," McClure said.

He added that no election is perfect, and he has said the county has demanded that ES&S fix the machines. A company official attended the last council meeting and vowed to find solutions.

Councilman Robert Werner has criticized the ES&S system, but agreed that the paper ballots worked. Still, "We have a trust issue with the public," he said.

Council President Ron Heckman said ES&S will be required to address all problems before the 2020 election, when turnout will be higher.

"This is squarely on the shoulders of the company and they are on a short leash," he said.

Lorraine Mineo of Williams Township pointed out a human problem with elections: lack of poll workers. She said the county needs more and better-trained workers at voting precincts.

"It's a very long day and there was a lot of stress with these machines," she said.

Mineo urged the county to do whatever it can to get more poll workers for Election Day.

Heckman said county council shares the voters' concerns.

Other News

In other business, Heckman said a public hearing on the county's $445 million 2020 budget will be held at the council's Dec. 5 meeting, and a vote may be held that night. McClure's spending plan does not raise taxes.

The council will also hold a hearing Dec. 5 to consider a $2 million grant to ArtsQuest, the Bethlehem-based organization that runs Musikfest. ArtsQuest would receive $200,000 annually over 10 years to improve facilities that draw tourists and dollars to the region. The money would come from the hotel tax the county assesses to fund tourism, not from taxpayers.

The council voted 8-0 to endorse the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission's FutureLV regional plan for land use. Heckman and Werner were joined in the vote by John Cusick, Margaret Ferraro, Lori Vargo Heffner, Kevin Lott, William McGee and Tara Zrinski. Matthew Dietz was absent.

The planning commission is an advisory group, and final land-use decisions are up to municipalities.

McClure said with the new plan, "We're taking on warehouse proliferation." He conceded that Pennsylvania favors the rights of developers over regulators, and he has said earlier that the best way to control land use is for the county to buy and preserve acreage.

LVPC Executive Director Becky Bradley said the new plan encourages towns to consider the impact warehouses have on the environment and on roads. She said there are indications that municipalities in Lehigh and Northampton counties are, without yielding their independence, starting to work together on planning issues that could limit warehouse development.

Greg Zebrowski, a former county council member who is the vice chairman of the LVPC, said the new plan tries to limit warehouse development to land within a quarter mile of major highways because local roads are not equipped to handle the additional traffic.

Zebrowski indicated local municipalities ultimately are the ones that have to get tough on development. The LVPC can try to set policy, but "We do not have any statutory power," Zebrowski said.

Northampton County also welcomed back a familiar face. Doran Hamann, former budget administrator who retired after 40 years with the county, was appointed to the revenue appeals board.