Bethlehem Press

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Council puts brakes on new voting system

Monday, April 29, 2019 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Following a lengthy meeting that included a parade of 10 speakers opposed to the Express Vote XL voting machine system, Northampton County Council voted 5-4 April 18 to put the brakes on an anticipated $2.9 million purchase.

Council member John Cusick, who said he actually supports XL, suggested waiting until after the May election to see how the system performs in Delaware. Joining him in a motion to delay the purchase were council members Bob Werner, Peg Ferraro, Matt Dietz and Tara Zrinski. Opposing this delay were Council President Ron Heckman and members Bill McGee, Lori Vargo Heffner and Kevin Lott.

Cusick argued that a brief delay would give him “peace of mind” in this choice.

Executive Lamont McClure said that he would honor council’s wishes and wait, though he could make the purchase now. Earlier that night, council voted unanimously to set aside the money for this system, which was endorsed by the elections commission in March. There is some authority that it is the elections commission, and not county council, who decides on voting systems. That issue is currently being litigated in Allegheny County, which like Northampton is a home rule county.

This delay means that the new system, if purchased, will cost an additional $20,000. Administrator Charles Dertinger added, however, that it will still be in place in time for November’s election.

Pennsylvania’s department of state has directed all 67 counties to have new systems in place, with a paper trail, in time for next year’s presidential race.

The Express Vote XL system has been certified by both the state and federal government.

The 10 speakers who oppose the XL included two elections commission members, Councilman Bob Werner’s wife, a self-proclaimed “data geek” and Janice Hobbs Pellechio, an “election integrity” activist from Doylestown. They want a return to paper ballots, which are later scanned and have in some states presented questions of voter intent.

Pellechio lectured council that they were quick “to pick something that most of you do not really understand.” She said they need “to step back and do your homework.”

Bob Werner accused the McClure administration of having already decided on XL back in August.

This was disputed by administration employee Amy Cozze, who spent “five months of my life” weighing the pros and cons of different systems. She insisted that neither Dertinger nor anyone else had directed her to favor any one system.

The XL system has been under consideration since August. Council members John Cusick, Ron Heckman and Bill McGee all said they had already spent a great deal of time looking at numerous systems.

Despite a Cozze presentation showing that the legacy costs of XL are cheaper over 10 years than a paper ballot, Deb Hunter insisted it was more expensive. She dismissed concerns about a state law requiring that over 100 percent of the ballots be pre-printed for polling places that use paper ballots, though she failed to explain how state law could be ignored. Those bags of paper would weigh over 80 pounds in some precincts.

In response to concerns about judges of elections being tasked with transporting this load back to Easton, Hunter said the same public works employees who transport the machines to the polling place can simply pick up the bags when they return after the polls close.

Though this was not addressed, Hunter’s suggestion means you’d never see elections results on election night. Public works employees would need several hours to pick up these bags and would have to be paid overtime. To preserve the chain of custody, judges of elections would have to remain at the polling place, alone, until the bags are picked up. It is also unclear whether judges of elections can surrender results to anyone other than the register of elections.

Ironically, many of the speakers accused county council of not only being in a rush, but acting undemocratically. Tara Stevenson called the decision “boneheaded,” and said they were all being hustled. They were presented with a state map showing the number of counties that had decided to use paper ballots. Dertinger and Cozze responded this map, which was waved by several speakers, was pure misinformation. They had spoken to each of the counties.

Though each of the speakers who opposed XL claimed to be interested in democracy, they were asking council to ignore the wishes of a clear majority of election judges who preferred XL over three other systems during a demonstration earlier this year. “Elections judges do not understand the system,” complained Elections Commissioner Kathy Fox, who was on the losing side of the 3-2 March recommendation in support of XL.

Tara Zrinski, rumored to be running against State Rep. Marcia Hahn next year, presented the spectre of hacked machines. This was quickly rebutted by both Dertinger and Cozze. Cozze pointed out that each machine is stand alone, and the only way it could be hacked is by giving someone access to each and every machine in 125 precincts. She said they are secured in a camera-monitored warehouse. Dertinger added that no other computers are allowed inside that building. Cozze said the more troubling concern is when arguments arise over a marked ballot where the voter’s intent is unclear.

Zrinski also attacked XL vendors because they were absent. They had already made three presentations, including a presentation the previous day to which Zrinski arrived about an hour late.

Hunter and Werner complained that the elections commission should have considered a third paper system, the one chosen by Lehigh County. As Dertinger explained several times, the systems considered were the top two preferences of elections judges.

One of the bugaboos raised about the XL system is a barcode that appears on each ballot. This makes them insecure, according to Deb Hunter husband Gene. Barcodes are common in hospitals, pharmacies, banks and even at PennDOT.

Sitting in the back of the room,but saying nothing, was Matt Munsey. He chairs Northampton County Democrats...