In this year’s Luzerne County May 16 municipal primary election, voters in 60 percent of the 180 precincts received the incorrect electronic voting machine ballot for their political party, the county’s election head recently informed council members.
That means registered Democrats chose Republican nominees or Republicans selected Democratic contenders in 108 precincts.
The total impact is unclear. The office did not tally the number of instances incorrect ballots were issued within each precinct, which means the error could have involved one voter in each precinct or more, election officials said.
It’s an “alarming” problem that is not new, county Election Director Marisa Crispell said during her 2018 budget presentation last week.
Sampling by her office determined the following number of precincts issued incorrect party ballots in other primary elections: 2016, 77; 2013, 71; 2012, 80; and 2011, 102.
Party ballots are not an issue in general elections, when voters are free to select candidates of any affiliation.
Crispell blamed the problem on poll worker error, saying some do not follow training protocol to ensure the correct party ballot is loaded into the electronic voting machines when voters approach.
After voters check in at polling places, poll workers are supposed to hand them a Democratic or Republican card to present to another worker who activates the ballot in the machine, Crispell said.
“Nine times out of 10, that does not happen,” Crispell said.
Instead, some workers activating the machines rely on voters to tell them their party. She speculated some voters told the ballot activators the incorrect party this year because they had switched political affiliation in the 2016 presidential election, not realizing they must file paperwork again if they wanted to return to their original affiliation.
Her proposed solution: electronic poll books that will print out tickets with party affiliation that must be presented to ballot activators.
The poll books are estimated to cost $350,000 over five years, or $70,000 annually, Crispell said. That includes poll worker training and 220 electronic tablets with software, stands, carrying cases, printers and maintenance, she said, noting the estimate was formulated after reviewing six poll book vendors.
Replacing paper poll books with electronic versions also would allow election workers to speed up the processing of voters because they could instantly search a countywide database if a voter’s name does not appear on their list. Currently, the workers must contact the election office for this information, which may result in busy signals if the office is swamped, Crispell said.
If the county eventually switches to new voting machines, the electronic poll books would be compatible with them and print bar codes on paper that must be inserted into the new machines, she said.
While the $70,000 poll book expenditure for 2018 was included in the proposed budget, county Manager C. David Pedri stressed council must approve the purchase contract.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash told Crispell the discovery of incorrect ballots was disturbing and could have impacted results in tight races.
“That’s terrible to find out,” Dobash said.
Crispell concurred, saying there are often “small margins” in some local primary election races determining which candidates advance to the general from each party.
The election bureau’s proposed 2018 budget is $925,378, or an increase of $35,073.
The administration is seeking a new $28,000 election services associate position, which would bring the office staff count to seven.
The new associate would focus on creating, managing and implementing outreach programs benefiting voters, candidates, local governments and other groups, Crispell said.
Pedri told council the election bureau employed 22 in 2001 and has sustained cuts that have made its staff size smaller than that of several other similarly sized counties.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.