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A voter and her daughter feed her ballot face down into a voting machine at the New LIFE Worship Center Church of God in Fayetteville, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Voting rights groups are calling for Northampton County officials to investigate a voting machine programming error that forced residents there to use emergency paper ballots on Election Day.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, Common Cause PA, All Voting is Local, PA Voice, Action Together NEPA, and PA Stands Up sent a letter to Northampton County elections officials on Tuesday asking the county to look into and explain the error to the public in an effort to ensure it does not occur again in the county, or anywhere in the state. The groups said understanding what went wrong and being transparent about it is especially important in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. 

“These programming errors damage public trust,” Philip Hensley-Robin, executive director of Common Cause PA, said in a press release issued Tuesday. “To prevent further damage, it is imperative that the county clarify what happened and why it happened. We must reassure voters that steps are being taken to prevent this kind of mistake in the future.”

During a press conference on Nov. 7, county officials said a clerical error caused voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software to sometimes print inaccurate results for one portion of the ballot. The error only pertained to the section in which voters could choose to retain Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella and Superior Court Judge Victor P. Stabile for another 10-year term. If voters chose to retain both candidates or selected to retain neither of them, there was no error on the printed receipt. However, if a voter chose to retain one but not the other, the printed receipt would swap the names. For example, if a voter chose to retain Panella but not Stabile, the printed receipt would say they had backed keeping Stabile and not Panella.

Officials said during the Election Day press conference that the machines’ back-end systems accurately recorded the votes, despite the paper receipts saying otherwise. Once the error was noticed, voters filled out provisional ballots. 

“We will once again in Northampton County, at the end of this process, have a fair, legal and accurate election,” Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said during the press conference.

McClure went on to call the incident a minor one. 

“I’m describing this as relatively minor because it is,” he said at the press conference. “It is because it occurred only in one race, and that was a retention race for Superior Court. And what I can tell you is that these votes will be counted. But it’s not minor in the sense that there are so many bad actors out in the world right now trying to undermine the confidence in our elections.”

Voting rights groups are especially concerned about the public perception of elections, especially in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. After that election, former President Donald Trump, Republican lawmakers, and other right-wing individuals pushed the lie that it had been stolen, and often falsely claimed there had been issues with voting machines. 

Following the error in Northampton County, misinformation about Pennsylvania’s election began to spread on social media. The Associated Press reported social media posts inaccurately accused Democrats of cheating in Pennsylvania’s election and falsely claimed voting machines were rigged to flip votes.

To deter future misinformation about the election and rebuild trust in an election process damaged by Trump’s lies, the voting rights groups said, Northampton County officials need to conduct a full investigation of the error and make the results available to the public. The groups also called on the officials to evaluate voting machine testing procedures in order to catch errors before Election Day, issue a notice of the machine testing to the public so individuals can observe the process, and supply each polling place with an adequate number of emergency paper ballots.

All Pennsylvania counties are legally required to complete what’s known as logic and accuracy testing of voting machines before Election Day. That testing is meant to detect any issues with the machines. The voting rights groups said in their press release that the county completed some of the testing, but not to full compliance. The county also did not have enough emergency ballots on hand, they said.

McClure did not respond to a request for comment.

Marian Schneider, senior policy counsel for voting rights at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement, “The programming error that occurred in Northampton County should be a lesson for every Pennsylvania county that uses hybrid touch screen voting machines.”

“Northampton County missed this error in its pre-election testing and failed to have an adequate contingency plan, including a lack of emergency paper ballots,” Schneider said. “The ACLU of Pennsylvania is committed to doing all we can to ensure that each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are taking the proper precautions to ensure smooth, safe, and secure elections in 2024 and beyond.”

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