That's how Northampton County Executive John Stoffa described our last two elections. And he's right. In the primary, Democrats and Republicans were reversed and there was no write-in tally for six weeks. In the general election, voters were confused by a ballot designed to encourage straight party voting. And it took hours to tabulate results that turned out to be off by over 3,000 votes.
A few weeks ago, Stoffa named a five person "blue ribbon citizens advisory committee" to untangle the Gordian knot in the elections office. Its members? Russ Shade (Stoffa's reform-minded former campaign manager); Richard Benner (former registrar who oversaw 45 elections); Peg Ferraro (former county councilperson); Jack Bradt (former CEO at SI Handling); and Greta Browne (former congressional candidate). Today, this unusual nonpartisan committee met for the first time. It chose Peg Ferraro to serve as chair and Russ Shade as co-chair. It will be meeting weekly, with its next two meetings scheduled for Wednesday evenings at 7 PM, when working voters can attend.
Not a single member of county council attended today's meeting. Although the five member elections commission was expressly invited to participate, only Joan Rosenthal was able to attend today's 3 PM meeting.
Problems in the Elections Office
Stoffa originally told this committee it had just four months to come up with solutions. But today, his charge was a little more open-ended. He stressed they were not on a "witch hunt," but he wanted to know "how we can do better." He wants the public's input, improvements in our voting tabulation, and wondered whether an ethics code might be necessary. From all the accounts I've received, I believe it's pretty apparent why there are problems. Some of these problems, like the lack of paper trails and possible hacking, can only be solved at the state or federal level. But the county must deal with the following:
a) A registrar who refers to herself like this: "You seem to have failed to notice and appreciate that the person in charge of the Election Office is intelligent, dedicated, fair and non-bias and holds her office to the same standards. With every positive effort to hold a good and fair election I seem to be fighting a very negative, nasty wave from a group that seem to wish bad upon the office or the election." She rambled on for at least a half hour during today's meeting, assuring everyone things are wonderful. They aren't.
b) Elections workers are improperly trained and don't even know enough to offer provisional ballots, something that Pennsylvania law requires.
c) Voting machines are not evenly distributed so that precincts that have heavy votes get more machines.
d) There is insufficient manpower on hand in the elections office during an actual election.
e) Advanced Voting Machines must solve the problem of vote tallies following the election.
f) One party chair is too close to the elections office.
g) The Home Rule Charter needs to be strengthened to remove politics from the elections commission.
h) The ballot must be altered so that it is at least neutral on the subject of straight party ballots.
i) The district boundaries are screwed up (just call Voter Reg and ask for updated district maps and listen to the runaround you get)
j) There are mis-registered voters - assigned to vote outside the precincts where they reside.
A Good Start
Dick Benner very quickly got to the heart of the problem, He told Voter Registrar Deborah DePaul that "people must be made to understand you're there to help them." He suggested asking local high schools to provide 17 year olds to help monitor elections. "That exposes them to civic life and also eases the burden on elections workers." DePaul mentioned several colleges she's contacted, and claimed they only want to help when they're something in it for them. She completely missed Benner's point about contacting high schools, not colleges.
This committee is advisory only, a paper tiger. But they mean business. Their next meeting will be in council chambers on January 31 at 7 PM. Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.