Pennsylvania Election Fiasco Blamed on Incorrect Settings on New Voting Machines

December 13, 2019by Jonathan Lai
A voting station. (Photo by Dan McCue)

PHILADELPHIA — When votes were tallied last month using new voting machines in Northampton County, it was quickly obvious that something had gone wrong.

The numbers were so clearly inaccurate that a judge ordered the machines impounded, scanners were brought in to help count ballots, and voters questioned the integrity of the machines and the security of the election. The fiasco heightened concerns about the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania as the state looks to implement new voting machines in all 67 counties before the April primary.

It turns out the machines had been set up improperly, county officials and the voting machine vendor said Thursday, a week after they began an investigation. The machines weren’t prepared to read the results of the specific ballot design used in Northampton County, and dozens of machines had touchscreens that weren’t properly calibrated.

Adam Carbullido, an executive at Election Systems & Software, the Omaha, Neb.-based vendor of the ExpressVote XL machines used in Northampton County, said in a statement that the company “takes full accountability” for the mistakes and is reconfiguring the county’s machines.

“This was all human error and all on ES&S’ end,” said Northampton County executive Lamont McClure.

The same ES&S machines were used in Philadelphia last month without any significant problems.

Northampton County has about 320 of the new machines, McClure said in an interview, and about 30% of them had improperly calibrated screens that led to sensitivity problems. All the machines had problems tabulating results because they didn’t take into account a ballot formatting change made to accommodate candidates who technically ran as both Democrats and Republicans.

There was additional text for those so-called “cross-filed” candidates, and voters’ selections were correctly printed onto the ballot, officials said. But they were read improperly into the database.

The machines only have to be reconfigured once, McClure said, and he emphasized that the machines themselves worked properly in selecting candidates and casting ballots. While there were errors in tabulating them, he said, the voter-verifiable paper ballots worked as designed, allowing them to be audited and hand-counted as needed.

“We had a fair, accurate and legal election,” McClure said. “The machines worked.”

Northampton County’s problems had raised concerns about the voting machines, underscoring criticism from advocates who said Philadelphia should have chosen hand-marked paper ballots instead.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered every county to buy new machines with paper trails that can be audited as an election-security measure in advance of next year’s presidential election.

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©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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