Sara Innamorato and Stephen Zappala are expected to win key Allegheny Co. races.

By | November 8, 2023

A clerical error by a voting machine company made it appear as if votes in an eastern Pennsylvania county were flipped on a ballot question that asked whether two sitting appellate judges should be retained, officials said Tuesday.

Voters were asked to decide whether Pennsylvania Superior Court Judges Jack Panella and Victor Stabile should be retained for additional 10-year terms. The “yes” or “no” votes for each judge were activated on a summary displayed to voters before they cast their ballots, said Charles Dertinger, Northampton County director of administration. If a voter marked “yes” to retain Panella and “no” to Stabile, for example, it was reflected as “no” for Panella and “yes” for Stabile.

Voters noticed the error on printed voting records produced by the touch-screen machines and brought it to the attention of election officials shortly after voting began Tuesday morning.

Despite the glitch on the printed summary, voters’ actual choices were correctly recorded by the machines’ back-end system, and their votes will be tabulated accurately, Dertinger said Thursday afternoon at a news conference in Easton .

“What you read and what the computer reads are two different things. The computer does not read printed text,” he said.

The problem affected all voting machines used Tuesday in the county, estimated at more than 300. The Pennsylvania Department of State said the problem was limited to the two retention votes in Northampton County and no others Statewide racing was unaffected.

The county obtained a court order Tuesday after the problem was discovered, allowing the machines to continue in use.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, who runs the county 50 miles north of Philadelphia, called it a “relatively minor problem” and said in a telephone interview that “everyone’s vote will count” as the voters wanted. Election officials were tasked with informing voters of the problem before they entered the voting booth.

Still, he said later Thursday, the issue angered him, given the distrust among many voters.

“It’s our job to help give people confidence, to give them peace of mind in their voting process,” McClure, a Democrat, said at the news conference. “We need to reassure the public that their vote is safe and secure.”

McClure blamed a coding error on voting machine company Election Systems & Software, which he said county elections staff failed to detect during testing.

ES&S, based in Omaha, Nebraska, admitted wrongdoing. A company spokeswoman, Katina Granger, said the problem was due to human error, was limited to Northampton County and only affected the matter of judicial retention.

“We deeply regret what happened today,” said Linda Bennett, the company’s senior vice president of customer operations.

This isn’t the first time Northampton County has had issues with the company’s ExpressVoteXL touchscreen system. In 2019, a poorly formatted ballot in a judicial race forced election workers to count the vote on paper ballots.

Election security advocates then filed a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s certification of the ExpressVoteXL system. The lawsuit was settled in August with an agreement that election officials would record and publicly report problems with voting machines.

Rich Garella of Protect Our Vote Philly, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, questioned Tuesday whether ExpressVoteXL machines could be trusted.

“Any defective machine must be immediately taken out of service and every voter must be provided with an emergency paper ballot,” he said.

The machines are also used in Philadelphia and Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, although no problems were reported there as of Tuesday.

The issue in Northampton County has had little practical effect, because retention of statewide judicial power holders is almost automatic in Pennsylvania. Only one judge on one of the state’s three appeals courts has been removed by voters. It was 2005, when Judge Russell Nigro lost his term in the fallout from legislation granting pay raises to state legislators and judges.

In a retention election, citizens vote “yes” or “no” to retaining a judge for a new 10-year term.

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