Northampton officials unanimously vote ‘no confidence’ in ExpressVote XL voting machine

  • Emily Previti/PA Post

EASTON – Northampton County Election Commissioners unanimously supported a “vote of no confidence” in the county’s new voting machines after vendor Election Security & Software presented findings Thursday night from an investigation into tabulation errors and other problems when the system debuted.

The incorrect tallies in last month’s election were linked to races with cross-filed candidates and straight-ticket ballots cast by voters. Cross-filed candidates are ones seeking an office on more than one party line, while the straight ticket option lets voters click one box to select every candidate on the ballot from one party. 

Voters also complained that the ExpressVote XL touchscreens registered votes they hadn’t cast.

Commissioner Kathy Fox said it happened to her.

“I didn’t even think I touched it,” Fox said at Thursday’s meeting. “And [the machine] recorded that vote. And so that made me a little nervous. Just because I don’t really think I was touching it.”

According to ES&S, a selection on the XL can be triggered by an infrared sensor without the voter actually touching the machine. “It’s very thin, but you can make a selection just by getting just close enough,” said ES&S Vice-President of Product Development Adam Carbullido.

Carbullido has placed the blame for the problems squarely on ES&S, which has more county contracts than any other vendor in Pennsylvania and dominates nationally as well. He’s attributed the problems in Northampton to mistakes that went undetected before the machines shipped from the company’s warehouse in Omaha, Neb., and again during pre-election logic and accuracy testing (which the Pa. Department of State will oversee in the county next spring).

Carbullido and ES&S Product Manager Tobey Dingbaum returned to Easton Thursday to explain what went wrong and answer questions from election commissioners, the same opportunity afforded Northampton County Council last week.

“You are going to send extra staff on-site [and] to train,” Commissioner Deb Hunter said to Carbullido, who agreed. “I want that at no charge,” Hunter added. “That should all be gratis.”

Deb Hunter

Emily Previti / PA Post

Northampton County Election Commissioner Deb Hunter listens during a Dec. 19, 2019, commission meeting during which she moved a vote of no confidence in the ExpressVote XL voting machine and manufacturer Election Systems & Software after hearing ES&S explain why the XL’s rollout was so problematic there in the Nov. general election. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

After nearly an hour of grilling Carbullido and Dingbaum, Hunter said she wanted to “reject these machines and request a refund from ES&S because they’ve broken our contract.” She also revealed that none of the commissioners has actually seen the document.  

Although the county Election Commission selected the ES&S system, their choice amounted to a recommendation, subject to approval and financing by County Council. According to Assistant Solicitor Richard Santee, the commission doesn’t have the authority to cancel the contract under Northampton’s home rule charter – only the council has that power.

“I’m trying to give council paper backup from this commission [on where it stands],” she said. “They’re looking to us to fix this. Even though they have the purse strings, they want us to have this debate.”

Ultimately, Hunter moved a resolution to formally express “no confidence [in] ES&S’s ability to make sure these machines are operable, fulfill all their promises with regard to staffing, training, helping to run a proper logic and accuracy test –all of the things … they say to ensure we’ll have a verifiable, proper election.”

The commission voted 4-0 in support of the measure (the fifth person on the panel, Chairman George Treister Jr., left the meeting at the 45-minute mark, citing a health issue).

County Council is scheduled to meet next on Jan. 6. 

Republican Councilman John Cusick says he thinks the issues should be resolved in time for the presidential primary April 28 (ES&S personnel the issues won’t occur again due to a software update and Pa.’s elimination of straight-ticket voting).

“If Northampton County continues to have problems with the ExpressVote XL, then additional options will have to be considered,” Cusick wrote in an email.

Other council members didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

In a court filing last week, attorneys for DoS and officials from the two other XL counties outlined why a decertification would cause chaos four months out from the presidential primary (though Northampton’s been through it before, switching systems in 2008 on a similar timeline after the state decertified its Advanced Voting Solutions machines).

The ExpressVote XL was picked as the new voting machine in Cumberland County, where the machines will roll out for the spring primary, and in Philadelphia, where voters did report problems with the XL — if less dramatic than in Northampton and limited to touchscreen hypersensitivity (Philly ballots didn’t have any cross-filed candidates Nov. 5). 

Most of the 33 other ES&S counties opted for hand-marked scannable ballots, with about half a dozen choosing the machine-marked ExpressVote system, according to PA Post’s analysis.  

California, Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and Texas also have certified the XL, according to an affidavit from ES&S in the state’s recent response in a federal case seeking decertification of the machine. 

The filing also includes statements from DoS as well as officials from Philadelphia and Cumblerand — but not Northampton. 

Maudeania Hornik

Emily Previti / PA Post

Northampton County Election Commissioner Maudeania Hornik speaks during a Dec. 19, 2019, meeting of the Northampton County Election Commission in Easton, Pa. Hornik says confidence in election integrity is particular critical in swing counties like Northampton. Hornik is the only one of the five commissioners who will return next year for another term. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

A separate, more recent lawsuit filed in state court last week also demands the XL’s decertification. An outgoing county councilman is among five people from Northampton in that group of plaintiffs. It also includes eight Philadelphians and two fair election advocacy groups. 

“Quite a number of residents in our county … have no confidence in [ES&S’s] machines or in the results of the last election,” said Commissioner Maudeania Hornik. “We owe it to our residents, but I also think we owe it to future candidates that their election would be honest and fair.”

Hornik is the only commissioner returning in 2020 for another term. For everyone else, their last meeting was Thursday.

“We are a swing county,” Hornik said. “We are a county that likes our Republicans, and we are a county that likes our Democrats. And we must have confidence in our machines.”

 

Note: This post was edited to add comment from Northampton County Councilman John Cusick and reflect an updated number of counties that have new contracts with ES&S. 

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