Fallout from Northampton County voting machine problems continues
Investigations, a resignation and GOP reaction
It’s been more than three weeks since Election Day, but the voting machine problems in Northampton County continue to reverberate.
The county Election Commission certified the vote Nov. 21 at the end of a four-hour meeting where a large majority of the more than three dozen speakers urged the board not to certify the results. They said voting machines that switched “yes” and “no” votes on paper verification sheets on only two state judicial retention questions raise questions about the veracity of all results.
Charles Dertinger, who as the county administration director oversees the election office, resigned three days later. The county is investigating how the problem occurred, a requirement under state law, county Executive Lamont McClure said Wednesday. The report must be submitted to the state within 60 days of the election. He also said the county human resources department is examining whether county employees were negligent, a report that will be confidential because it involves personnel matters. He did note that if any procedural issues arise from that HR investigation they could be shared publicly.
The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections statewide, said this week it has been “in contact with Northampton County election officials and plans to meet with them as soon as the county has completed its internal review.”
The Northampton County Republican Committee has had discussions with lawyers both locally and with the state GOP to decide what steps to take regarding the election. “We continue to explore the appropriate action and legal avenues that are available,” said Glenn Geissinger, chair of the Northampton County Republican Committee.
Geissinger said he is waiting for McClure, a Democrat, to take responsibility for the problems.
“I understand Charles [Dertinger] took some of the responsibility for some of the miscues that occurred on Election Day” and the county’s response to them, he said. “Lamont McClure is in charge of this and hasn’t taken responsibility. … When is Lamont McClure going to stand up and take responsibility? I think he should take responsibility, and he should resign.”
McClure said he will not resign.
“In 2025, when I seek reelection, the public will be able to judge my two terms in office and decide appropriately,” he said.
McClure accepted Dertinger’s resignation with “deep regret,” he said in a statement released last Friday.
“Mr. Dertinger has spent nearly six years honorably serving the people of Northampton County in my Administration. While the 2019 and 2023 Elections were failures under his leadership of the Elections Division, the ’20, ’21, and ’22 elections were nearly flawless, as any complicated human activity can expect to be.”
Dertinger, also a Democrat, and McClure have been close politically for nearly 20 years. They both sought at-large seats on county council in 2005, with Dertinger winning election to one of the five positions but McClure being unsuccessful.
When a council position became vacant in 2006, McClure joined Dertinger on the board after being appointed to complete the remainder of the term. In 2007, McClure was elected to a four-year term to represent District III. Dertinger was off the board at the end of 2009 after losing a reelection bid.
In 2017, McClure was elected county executive; when his term began in 2018, he appointed Dertinger to the top administrative post.
“Mr. Dertinger and I have been working together on a shared vision of county governance since at least 2005,” McClure said in his statement. “Many of the things I care about, he cared about first. The preservation of open and green space comes to mind. Many of the successes of our Administration have come due to his efforts in helping implement our initiatives.”
“Mass confusion” on Election Day
Shortly after the polls opened on Nov. 7, county poll workers discovered voting machines switched votes – “yes” or “no” – on a paper summary of voters’ selections in only two contests: Superior Court retention questions for President Judge Jack Panella (a former Northampton County judge) and Judge Victor P. Stabile. County officials told workers at the polls to instruct voters to use paper emergency ballots instead of the machines.
The county determined that no other races were affected and that the retention votes were recorded properly on its more than 300 voting machines. After two hours, officials said voters could resume using the machines. While the machines were not in use, voters at the county’s 156 precincts completed 235 provisional ballots and 2,160 emergency ballots.
John Cusick, a Republican county council member and unsuccessful candidate in the election for county controller, said in an interview that he learned of the voting machine problems about 10 a.m. on Election Day.
“I was outside of a polling place here in Williams Township and just talking to a couple of voters and someone came up to us and said, ‘Oh, do you know that the machines are flipping votes?’ I was like, ‘Noooo.’ ”
He said no worker at the polling place told him there was a problem when he voted around 10 a.m. County officials said earlier they had instructed poll workers to alert voters of the problem with the Superior Court retention votes.
“Needless to say, as a candidate it was frustrating after you put in the time and the effort that you find out that the voting machines were not working properly,” he said. He added that the problems did not affect the result of his race, in which he lost to Democrat Tara Zrinski, also a county council member, who had about 54% of the vote.
“There was mass confusion,” Cusick said. He heard that one precinct in Williams Township had the wrong poll book listing eligible voters. “I don’t blame the poll workers because they were doing the best they could under a difficult situation.”
His comments echoed what many people said at the Election Commission meeting last week. Voters and poll workers described chaos at some polling places, contradictory instructions from some poll workers, a shortage of emergency paper ballots (the county said each polling place had only 20 such ballots along with an unspecified number of provisional ballots), a lack of privacy when casting votes on the paper ballots and reports that some people were told to return later to vote.
McClure said that the county issues each precinct only 20 paper emergency ballots, which generally have not been needed. He said it’s expensive to print paper ballots, which typically are discarded after an election.
“But in hindsight, that number of emergency ballots is of course problematic,” he said.
McClure emphasized the election was fair and valid and that voting machines were not the problem. “I’m trying to make the point that it’s not the machines that made the mistake, it’s the people.”
The voting machines are manufactured by Election Systems & Software, a company based in Omaha, Nebraska. Company officials on Election Day and at the election certification meeting apologized for the programming problem and accepted responsibility for the errors, which were not noticed during pre-election testing of the county’s units.
Two other counties – Columbia and Philadelphia – use the same ExpressVote XL units. Neither county experienced problems with their machines.
“The problem was limited to the Superior Court judicial retention questions in Northampton County,” the state said in response to questions from Armchair Lehigh Valley. Consideration of any action or sanctions against ES&S is on hold until after meeting with the county after it completes its investigation.
Similar problems with the machines in Northampton County occurred in November 2019, when the county first used them in a general election. The county paid $2.8 million for the machines in 2019 under a five-year contract that expires next year.
Cusick said council does not have the responsibility to propose switching to different machines for 2024, a presidential election year. A proposal must first come from the county Election Commission, which then seeks approval from county council.
“If it were up to me,” he said, “I would get rid of those machines. I will not be using them next year. I’ll either be voting by mail or in person with paper ballots. This [kind of problem] has happened twice now. I would urge the election board to recommend a new system. After two failures, it’s time to move in a different direction.”
However, county officials have said switching to new machines next year – the primary is planned for April – could cause problems for poll workers, who would have insufficient time to be trained on them.