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EASTON, Pa. -- It was a few minutes after the polls closed on Election Day when panic began to spread through the county election offices.

Vote totals in a Northampton County judge's race showed one candidate, Abe Kassis, a Democrat, had just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots across more than 100 precincts. Some machines reported zero votes for him. In a county with the ability to vote for a straight-party ticket, one candidate's zero votes was a near statistical impossibility. Something had gone quite wrong.

Lee Snover, the chairwoman of the county Republicans, said her anxiety began to pick up at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 5. She had trouble getting someone from the election office on the phone. When she eventually got through, she said: "I'm coming down there, and you better let me in."

With clearly faulty results in at least the judge's election, officials began counting the paper backup ballots generated by the same machines. The paper ballots showed Kassis winning narrowly, 26,142-25,137, over his opponent, Republican Victor Scomillio.

"People were questioning, and even I questioned, that if some of the numbers are wrong, how do we know that there aren't mistakes with anything else?" said Matthew Munsey, chairman of the Northampton County Democrats, who, along with Snover, was among the observers as county officials worked through the night to count the paper ballots by hand.

The errors in Northampton County did not just expose flaws in the election machine testing and procurement process. It also highlighted the fears, frustrations and mistrust over election security that many voters are feeling ahead of the 2020 presidential contest. The problematic machines were also used in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs -- areas of Pennsylvania that could prove decisive next year in one of the most critical presidential swing states in the country.

In an era where some candidates and incumbents try to challenge or discredit a close loss by questioning the system, either with unfounded allegations of voter fraud or claims of a "rigged" election, the proper functioning and security of election machines has never been more crucial.

"There are concerns for 2020," Snover said, questioning whether the paper ballots generated by the same machine that had a digital error could be trusted. "Nothing went right on Election Day. Everything went wrong. That's a problem."

Though there has been no conclusive study as to what caused the machines to malfunction, because the machines are locked away for 20 days after an election under state law, the prevailing theory is that the touch screens were plagued by a bug in the software. A senior intelligence official who focuses on election security said there were no visible signs of outside meddling by any foreign actors.

County officials who led the purchase of the machines have argued that the system actually functioned as it should: The paper ballot backup process worked. The touch screens failed, but the backups had the correct vote, so while it was inconvenient, it proved the necessity of a paper backup.

"We also need to focus on the outcome, which is that voter-verified paper ballots provided fair, accurate and legal election results, as indicated by the county's official results reporting and successful postelection risk-limiting audit," said Katina Granger, a spokeswoman for Election Systems & Software, the manufacturer of the machines. "The election was legal and fair."

But for others, it underscored the fractured system for selecting voting systems. Major decisions for testing, purchasing and operating complex machines are often left to county and city officials. Federal testing standards for election machines haven't been updated since 2005, when a large percentage of the machines were not digital.

"Not only is that a decade before the current cybersecurity threats to our elections, it is two years before the first iPhone," said Kevin Skoglund, a senior technical adviser for the National Election Defense Coalition, a nonpartisan group that focuses on election security issues. "There is a newer 2015 standard, but the Election Assistance Commission lets voting system vendors choose which one to use."

A Section on 12/01/2019

Print Headline: Pennsylvania vote woes raise worry for '20 election

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