Hundreds of Uncounted Votes Discovered in Pa. in Local Township Election

November 14, 2019by Nicole Radzievich, Tom Shortell and Riley Yates
"I Voted" stickers at a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on November 6, 2018, in Irvine, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Northampton County election officials on Tuesday uncovered more than 200 votes that had not been part of the initial tally, affecting the result of the Lower Saucon Township Council race and adding to the problems the county had in tabulating votes on election night.

The mistake was found during a routine canvass of votes after an election that was anything but typical for the county. Complaints mounted after the county’s new voting machines malfunctioned, failing to register some votes and prompting the county to rely on the backup paper ballots. The Republican Party has raised numerous questions about the accuracy of the results, particularly in the county judge race.

Regarding the uncounted votes in Lower Saucon, Charles Dertinger, the county’s director of administration, said election personnel determined an elections judge in the township mistakenly placed 219 votes from Lower Saucon’s predominantly Republican 1st Precinct in the wrong case, which was sent to be tallied in Easton. The votes first were put into a canister and that canister was supposed to be placed in a case marked Lower Saucon Township Precinct 1. Instead the canister was placed in the case marked Lower Saucon Township Precinct 2.

Dertinger said county staff and partisan observers were satisfied the votes had not been tampered with. The canister was closed with two seals, each containing a serial code, and those seals had not been broken. The suitcase has not left the courthouse since it arrived on election night, he added.

“That is the reason for which we have a canvassing board. This is why it’s an unofficial vote as of (election) night,” Dertinger said.

It is unlikely those votes — less than 0.4% of the ballots cast — will be enough to sway some of the most closely watched elections at the county level. The unofficial count completed early last Wednesday had Republican Victor Scomillio trailing Democrat Abe Kassis by 1,005 votes for the last spot in the Northampton County judge race. However, it is a noteworthy number of votes in the Lower Saucon Township Council race, where Democrat Priscilla deLeon leads Republican Donna Louder for the last of three seats by 68 votes.

Louder, an incumbent, declined to comment.

DeLeon, also an incumbent, said she heard the missing votes counted Monday strengthen her position. She noted the township council races are usually close and that she won by just three votes the last time around.

“I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and if I don’t’ win, I know God has a different plan,” she said.

There were widespread problems on election day with the county’s new voting machines. The touch screen devices failed to electronically record votes for some candidates. In addition, voters reported several problems using the machines, including hypersensitivity and difficulties selecting candidates in some races.

An hour after the polls closed, officials learned that the machines appeared to severely undercount the votes in the race between Democrat John Morganelli, Kassis and Scomillio for two judges’ seats. The Pennsylvania Department of State authorized the county to tally the paper ballots instead. County Executive Lamont McClure has called the paper ballot “legal, fair and accurate.”

Election Systems & Software, the company that sold the machines to the county for $2.8 million, has not determined the cause of the undercounting but officials believe the problems emerged in races where candidates cross-filed. The company is trying to replicate the issue in similar machines at its Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters but can’t access the Northampton County machines, which are impounded by court order.

The developments come as Republicans raise questions about the outcome of the judge’s race, saying they were concerned by the number of voters who apparently did not cast ballots in that closely watched election.

According to unofficial results, nearly 58,000 voters went to the polls in Northampton County on election night. There were more than 115,000 potential votes that could be split between three candidates running for two open judge seats. But the county recorded 94,501 votes in total in the race, an undervote of 18%.

It isn’t unusual for down-ballot races to receive fewer votes than higher-profile contests. But Republicans noted the undervote in the judge’s race exceeded that of a similar pick-two contest for Superior Court that was also on the ballot — a lesser-tracked race that had an undervote of 13%.

That’s counter to the last two contested county judges’ contests — in 2009 and 2015 — when the local contests outpaced the state judicial races in the percentage of votes cast.

“Voters don’t know the candidates for the statewide races, and they are not comfortable with those candidates,” said Northampton County GOP Chairwoman Lee Snover said, explaining why she believes the vote typically drops off for statewide court races compared to county ones.

Snover said the fact that the 2019 results are saying the opposite suggests further investigation of the vote is needed. The issue is one of several being discussed as the GOP mulls a legal challenge to the election.

“I have not heard any reports of anyone saying they could not vote for the county judges’ candidates of their choice,” said McClure, a Democrat.

Matt Munsey, chairman of the Northampton County Democrats, said there’s a plausible explanation for the drop off in ballots. The judge’s race was initially noncompetitive because Morganelli had secured the Republican and Democratic nominations for one seat up for election. But at the end of August, another seat opened up, prompting the parties to nominate Scomillio and Kassis to run abbreviated campaigns. Some voters, Munsey said, may not have been familiar enough with those two candidates to cast their second vote or did not realize they were to pick two candidates.

In addition, Munsey said Scomillio campaigned on being the only true Republican running for the seat, suggesting that Republicans just cast one vote — for him.

There also are strategic reasons why a voter might undervote in a two-seat race. By casting a vote for only one candidate, that vote carries greater relative weight. The tactic even has a name — bullet voting.

As for the interest in the Superior Court race, Morganelli said that given the national political temperature, the state races likely boiled down to whether candidates were Democrats or Republicans, making undervotes less likely.

“There’s a lot of partisanship in this election that is leading people to be interested in these state elections and to vote in them,” he said.

McClure said he is confident the county’s results are accurate and will stand.

Once the county finishes canvassing the votes, the parties have five days to challenge the results, Snover said.

The canvass started on Friday and typically takes three to five days.

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©2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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