Pennsylvania county promises accurate tally after clerical error appears to flip votes for judges

A voting machine company's clerical error caused votes in an eastern Pennsylvania county to appear to be flipped on a ballot question that asked whether a pair of incumbent state appeals 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 switched on a summary displayed to voters before they cast their ballot, said Charles Dertinger, the Northampton County director of administration. If a voter marked “yes” to retain Panella and “no” on Stabile, for example, it was reflected as “no” on Panella and “yes” on Stabile.

Voters noticed the error on the printed voting records produced by the touchscreen machines, and brought it to the attention of poll workers shortly after the start of voting Tuesday morning.

Despite the glitch on the printed summary, voters' actual choices were properly recorded by the machines' backend 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 the text that is printed out," he said.

The issue affected all the county’s voting machines in use Tuesday, estimated at more than 300. The Pennsylvania Department of State said the problem was isolated to the two retention votes in Northampton County and that no other races statewide were affected.

The county obtained a court order Tuesday after the problem was discovered that allowed the machines to continue to be used.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, who leads the county 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Philadelphia, called it a “relatively minor glitch" and said in a phone interview that “everybody’s vote’s going to count" as the voters intended. Poll workers were instructed to inform voters of the glitch before they entered the voting booth.

Still, he said later Thursday, the problem angered him, given many voters' mistrust.

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

McClure blamed a coding error by voting machine company Election Systems & Software, which he said the county’s elections staff failed to pick up during testing.

Omaha, Nebraska-based ES&S acknowledged fault. A company spokesperson, Katina Granger, said the problem was caused by human error, was limited to Northampton County and only affected the judicial retention question.

“We deeply regret what has occurred today," said Linda Bennett, the company's senior vice president of customer operations.

It's not the first time Northampton County has had problems with the company's ExpressVoteXL touchscreen system. In 2019, an incorrectly formatted ballot in a judicial race forced election workers to count the vote on paper ballots.

Election-security advocates later filed suit challenging Pennsylvania's certification of the ExpressVoteXL system. The suit 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 that suit, questioned Tuesday whether the ExpressVoteXL machines could be trusted.

“Every malfunctioning machine should be immediately pulled from service and every voter should receive an emergency paper ballot," he said.

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

The glitch in Northampton County had little practical effect, as retention of statewide judicial incumbents is nearly automatic in Pennsylvania. Only one judge on any of the state’s three appellate courts has ever been recalled by voters. That was in 2005, when Justice Russell Nigro lost retention in the fallout over legislation that awarded pay raises to state lawmakers and judges.

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