Voting machines in one Pennsylvania county flip votes for judges, an error to be fixed in tabulation

NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, Pa. — A voting machine coding error in an eastern Pennsylvania county caused votes 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 being switched because of the error, said Lamont McClure, the Northampton County executive. 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.

McClure said voters first noticed the error on the printed voting records produced by the touchscreen machines.

The issue affected all the county’s voting machines in use Tuesday, which McClure 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. When the votes are tabulated, they will be corrected so that “Panella’s votes will be returned to Panella, and Stabile’s will be returned to Stabile,” said McClure, who leads the county 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Philadelphia.

McClure 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.

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.

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.

“If any voter is told to just cast their vote anyway because election officials ‘can flip the count later,’ that’s shocking,” he said. “Every malfunctioning machine should be immediately pulled from service and every voter should receive an emergency paper ballot.”

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.

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