Human error and sensitive touchscreens blamed for Northampton Co. election problems

  • Emily Previti/PA Post

EASTON – Incorrect election night vote counts in Northampton County were the result of human error and overly sensitive touchscreen technology, according to representatives from the manufacturer of the county’s new voting machines.

The ExpressVote XL voting machines erroneously tallied votes in cross-filed races — those in which one candidate is running as the nominee for more than one political party. Voters also complained that the machines’ touchscreens were overly sensitive and weren’t registering their choices correctly.

Officials for the XL’s manufacturer, Election Systems & Software, addressed the media and, later, County Council, on Thursday to reveal findings from their investigation into what went wrong on Nov. 5 with the system that the county paid $2.8 million to acquire.

They reported that the touchscreen problem happened because selection boxes for different candidates were too close together. To fix that issue, the boxes have been removed in the latest version of ES&S software, which is scheduled to start Pa.’s certification process in January, according to Adam Carbullido, the company’s senior vice-president of product development.

Carbullido said tabulation errors occurred only in cross-filed races on ballots where voters chose the straight-party option, which automatically selects the same party for each race. 

In the future, that won’t be an issue because Pennsylvania will no longer offer the straight-party option starting with the 2020 primary. 

Regardless, Carbullido said, the error should have been caught at two different points: During configuration before the machines were delivered, and during pre-election logic and accuracy testing in Northampton, which company and county officials jointly conducted.

“Had we provided the proper guidance and scrutiny, … it would have been caught,” Carbullido said, referring to ES&S staff who assisted the county. “We told (county election workers) to review the tapes, but not how to review the tapes and to what level of detail they needed to be reviewed.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State will oversee future pre-election testing in Northampton County and start the process earlier.

But the problem originated because of mistakes made by ES&S workers during machine configuration prior to shipping from the company’s warehouse in Omaha. Carbullido said the company will also heighten quality control procedures by double-checking configurations before voting machines are shipped out.

Some Northampton County Council members expressed concern about avoidable gaps in the quality control process of an industry leader like ES&S.

“The largest manufacturer of voting machines in the country had people in their plant that made human errors,” said Councilman Robert Werner. “These programs were marketed to us as if they were infallible. I know the votes were counted. But … we don’t have any hard solid proof they’re going to work.”

Tara Zrinski

Emily Previti / PA Post

Northampton County Councilwoman Tara Zrinski, left, watches a presentation from Election Systems & Software representatives including Product Manager Tobey Dingbaum Thursday. (Emily Previti / PA Post)

County Executive Lamont McClure said the problems experienced in the most recent election ultimately illustrate that the machines and auditing process function as intended

“That should give voters confidence that in November of 2020, we will know definitively who wins Northampton County,” McClure said. “That’s not to say I wasn’t deeply, deeply disappointed and at some points angry with the XL’s [performance].”

Carbullido said 30 percent of Northampton’s machines were improperly configured. He said the company hasn’t heard about similar problems elsewhere with the XL; however, Protect Our Vote Philly co-founder Rich Garella said the same touchscreen issues occurred in Philadelphia last month. 

Northampton County won’t incur any costs as a result of the investigation. ES&S also will provide funds to augment voter education about how to use the machines, company officials said Thursday.

ES&S still has to present its findings to the county Election Board on Dec. 19. 

In the meantime, local political leaders say they’d prefer an independent audit.

The leaders of the county’s main political parties — Republican Lee Snover and Democrat Matt Munsey — recently asked Council to bring in University of South Carolina professor Duncan Buell to look at the machines. Council shot them down, citing Buell’s links to Jill Stein, the former Green Party presidential candidate whose litigation led to the statewide mandate to upgrade all election systems in time for next year’s primary.

“They made the machines, they sell the machines,” Munsey said Thursday. “Of course, they’re going to give it a clean bill of health. … Even if 10 percent of voters don’t trust it, I think that’s a problem. And having an independent investigation check on that would help people feel confidence that it’s not just a company saying everything’s fixed.”

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