Bethlehem Press

Monday, March 18, 2019

Commission chooses new machines

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

On March 6, following a lengthy meeting attended by approximately 40 elections judges, Northampton County’s Elections Commission voted 3-2 to recommend that County Council fund the ES&S ExpressVote XL over the Clear Ballot voting systems.

The ExpressVoteXL is preferred by Executive Lamont McClure, Administrator Charles Dertinger, Finance Director Steve Barron and elections office staff. Voting yes were Elections Commission Chair George Treisner, along with Commissioners Layton (Lee) Snover and Maudeania Hornik. Voting no were Commissioners Deb Hunter and Kathy Fox. Before the vote, Dertinger advised the board that this new system will be in place for November’s election.

Last year, Pennsylvania’s Department of State directed all 67 counties to select new voting systems that include a paper record, making post-election audits more accurate. They must be in place before the 2020 primary. Though the statewide cost of his change is estimated at $125 million to $150 million, the state has yet to provide any of the funding. The federal government has provided a $342,000 grant to Northampton County.

Since last year’s unfunded mandate, voting system vendors have been pitching their products throughout the state. In February, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale determined that these salespeople lavished gifts on officials in 18 different counties. They ranged from de minimis favors like chocolate-covered pretzels to more troubling all-expense paid trips to Las Vegas.

Both Northampton and Lehigh County have denied receiving any gifts. Northampton County Exececutive Lamont McClure made clear that he neither sought nor received any gifts. This was echoed by Dertinger and Barron. Dertinger said that any county employee who accepted a trip to Las Vegas would likely be fired by McClure before the plane took off.

One of the vendors, Russ Dawson of Clear Ballot, admitted that he does sometimes hand out boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels. “I do cupcakes, too,” he admitted. “From Walmart.”

This meeting is the result of a demonstration of different voting systems at Lehigh County. Tim Benyo, the Voter Registrar there, invited Northampton County elections workers. Despite predictions that no one would come to an event offering no compensation, about 40 Northampton County pollworkers participated. They came to the March 6 meeting as well.

These systems were rated by Northampton County poll workers. The two top choices were ExpressVoteXL (81 percent) and Clear Ballot (7 percent).

The difference between these two systems is that Clear Ballot is a voter-marked paper ballot, while ExpressVote’s paper trail is established electronically. ExpressVote would be similar to the current system. Clear Ballot would require a voter to mark his ballot in a privacy booth, after which he would scan it in a separate line “There is going to be a line at that machine,” warned Allen Township Elections Judge Sandy Pisaletto.

County Deputy Administrator Amy Cozze laid out the case for ExpressVoteXL.

First, and most importantly, ExpressVoteXL has been certified by both the federal government and the state. She said the certification process for Clear Ballot was halted on Jan. 29. This was disputed by Clear Ballot’s Ingrid Giordano, who said certification is pending.

Second, the overall cost of ExpressVoteXL is cheaper when the 10-year legacy costs are included. The total cost to the county of ExpressVoteXL is $3.7 million, while the cost of Clear Ballot would be $5 million. Comm’r Deb Hunter refused to accept this cost estimate, saying it was “bloated” for Clear Ballot and underestimated for ExpressVoteXL.

Third, the Clear Ballot system raises privacy concerns. After marking ballots, voters would stand in line to scan their votes, raising the possibility that other voters could see how they voted. Hunter downplayed this concern, saying voters in Chester County are handed a folder into which they place their ballot while waiting to scan.

Fourth, Cozze was critical of Clear Ballot’s logistics. She noted that the state wants ballots prepared for 110 percent of the voters in each district. In some districts, they would weigh as much as 80 pounds. She also noted the problems of having separate stations for marking ballots and then scanning them.

Democratic activist Joanne Messenlehnecalled the decision a no-brainer. “Taxes are necessary, but I don’t think we should inflate this by not doing our homework.”

Agreeing with her was GOP Chair Lee Snover. “We’re not a third world country,” she argued. “We have technology for a reason. I don’t want anyone determining the intent of my vote except for me and the machine.”

Elections Commission Chair George Treisner objected to Clear Ballot as “going back to the old ages.”

Hunter said he wanted to be able to review a paper system offered by ES&S, but this system failed to get any strong recommendation from county poll workers. The meeting was intended to be a demonstration of ExpressVoteXL and Clear Ballot. Commissioner Maude Hornick made clear she wanted to vote that night.

And that’s what happened. The two Republican election commissioners were joined by a Democrat to support the choice of the McClure administration.

No one offered me any chocolate covered pretzels.