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Elections commission nixes EPollbooks

On January 30, Northampton County’s elections commissioner voted 4-1 against a request to approve a $240,000 order for electronic pollbooks (epollbooks) with Florida-based Tenex Software Solutions. With this single vote, the elections commissioner has just made it impossible for the county to conduct an election in April. The sole member to vote yes was Gail W. Preuninger.

Pollbooks are what elections officials bring to each precinct. They are massive books containing the registration data of every voter at that polling place. When voters check in, they sign this book. After the election, pollworkers handscan every person who has voted, a process that usually takes two to three weeks.

Epollbooks make things a lot easier, both for voter and pollworker. Printed paper pollbooks are usually broken up by the alphabet in each precinct, with an “A” to “K” book and another “L” to “Z” book. Three or four people whose last name begins with “L” could be standing in line while the “A” to K” clerk is unoccupied. With an epollbook, they could simply go to this unoccupied clerk because all the registration data is in each of the pollbooks.

Voter Registrar Amy Cozze notes it is often difficult for pollworkers to find someone’s name in the paper pollbook, even though the elections office separates letters of the alphabet with tabs they manually place in each paper pollbook. This speeds up dramatically with epollbooks. Typing a person’s name will reveal all pertinent information.

In addition to convenience for both voter and pollworker, Administrator Charles Dertinger had an even more compelling argument for epollbooks. The County has no choice. He previously told elections commissioner on Jan. 23 that the county’s paper pollbook printer, NTS Data, was no longer able to print them in time for the election because of recent changes to state law. These revisions give voters more time to register and apply for mail-in ballots, but that means less time for an accurate pollbook. “If we don’t have pollbooks by the primary, we can’t have an election,” warned Dertinger.

Cozze added she had fielded calls from Delaware and Montgomery counties, looking for a paper pollbook printer. No success.

Elections commissioners decided Jan. 23 to take a week and do their own research before voting. “I would like more time,” said Chair Maudenia Hornick. She noted she voted for the XL and “We got egg on our face.”

It appears they have egg on their face again.

Despite what both Dertinger and Cozze told commissioners, Chairperson Hornick told fellow Comm’rs that she had called NTS and was assured paper pollbooks could be printed in time for the April 28 primary.

She was wrong.

The day after this vote, NTS’s Director of Government Services, Mark D. Rossman, advised the County as follows:

Regrettably after careful consideration, NTS has determined that given the changes to election law requirements (as stipulated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) and the future advent of electronic poll books we can no longer provide what we feel will be a cost effective and timely solution to adequately meet the crucial needs of the Northampton County Elections Office. This was not a decision that we made lightly but one we thought practical for all concerned.

We have been proud to serve the voters of Northampton County these past 24 years. I regret any inconvenience this may cause your county and thank you for your past loyalty. ... .”

In addition to her mistaken claim that NTS Data could print paper pollbooks in time, Hornick added that she had spoken with Lehigh County’s Deputy Registrar about the Tenex epollbooks. Lehigh has used them for six years. Hornick said she was told Lehigh experienced lots of “hiccups,” and they take up a lot of space. Cozze contacted this Deputy after the meeting, and reports this Deputy denies she was negative about epollbooks.

In rejecting epollbooks, Northampton County’s Elections Commission was relying on the mistaken belief that paper pollbooks could still be used. Without pollbooks, there is no way to check in voters and no way to conduct an election.

“I don’t see the haste in rejecting the system we’ve been using,” argued Elections Commissioner Alan Brau, M.D. But there is no system. It is not the County that rejected the printer. It is the printer that rejected the county.

Assuming that the county could somehow find a paper pollbook printer, the expanded deadlines mean it would have no way to determine whether someone who applied for a mail-in ballot close to the deadline had not also voted at a precinct. The county would have to go through a two-to-three week process of hand-scanning the paper pollbooks to ensure no one had double voted before it could begin the process of counting these votes, even unofficially.

In stark contrast to hand-scanning paper poll books, epollbooks would enable elections officials to determine immediately if someone who applied for a mail-in ballot had tried to vote at the polling place.

Hornick said other counties print in-house, and for voters who requested mail-in ballots near the deadline, you could just add supplemental sheets. “The unofficial votes will take longer to count,” said Hornick, saying that is a trade-off for voter convenience. Hornick and Dr. Brau both said they’d prefer to wait for an off-year election to roll out epollbooks.

Unhappy with this decision, Executive Lamont McClure has fired off a letter to local newspapers. “T]he Election Commission made it very clear that they 1) are not interested in making sure candidates and Northampton County residents can see results the night of the election, 2) are not concerned about the stress they are putting on County staff, 3) are not troubled by the difficulties poll workers will have trying to check long lines of people in on multiple lists and 4) don’t care if Northampton County misses its filing deadline with the state.”

“If you want a floor cleaned properly, don’t refuse to give the janitor a mop.”

photo by bernie o'hareLena Santagio from Tenex demonstrated epollbooks at a Jan. 23 meeting.