Monday, November 10, 2008

Northampton County's Election - "Screw Up of Epic Proportions"?

You might disagree with the result, but Tuesday's presidential contest was an impressive sight. Yes, there were long lines, not just in Northampton County, but throughout the country. Considering the elections troubles four and eight years ago, these waits were a welcome relief. Considering the number of people who have fought and died for this country, those queues were a bargain.

Travelling from ward to ward, I was amazed by the smiles I saw everywhere. Obama supporters acted as parking attendants in one precinct. In another, a Dent supporter brought folding chairs for elderly voters. Lehigh students, future engineers, had devised confusing lines that already require a degree to understand. Many polling places had bake sales, and Obama and McCain supporters brought treats to those in line. It was an inspirational day. Even those miserable bastards at The Express Times awarded a trophy to "we the people."

It was a success.

But Northampton County Council, aka the Hangmen, are in no mood to give anyone but themselves trophies. They had lots of criticisms and recommendations. Although a legislative body has no business micromanaging an independent elections office, criticism is always a good thing. "How can we do better?" is the question that County Exec John Stoffa likes to ask.

Stoffa is currently making a quick recovery from some serious surgery, so Director of Administration John Conklin filled in for Stoffa at last Thursday's council meeting. He was initially responsive to council, but when it became apparent that some hangmen are just looking for an excuse to string someone up again, he shut up. He did turn about fourteen shades of purple while Dertinger spouted off, and every color variation matched his tie.

On Friday, I met with Conklin and Voting Registrar Howie Erney, and we discussed the concerns expressed at Thursday's council meeting.

1) Charles Dertinger's Latest HissyFit - Election a "Screwup of Epic Proportions."

On October 16, council member Charles Dertinger was already claiming the county had failed to provide additional manpower to enter 9,800 new registrants. Dertinger warned that the state department would "come down on our heads" and that the county would see "significant repercussions."

County exec Stoffa calmly told Dertinger, "Charles, that office is operating better now than it ever has, and you know it."

Sarcastically, Dertinger answered, "I'm sure it is. Actually, I don't know that. But it's always good for you to tell me what I know."

After Tuesday's election, Dertinger slammed the elections office and county administration for having given him a "total crock." He went on to claim that the county hurriedly added staff only becuase of his October 16th rant. Here's some of his harangue.

"According to the county web site, 1,800 fewer people voted in this last election. This election should have come as no surprise to anyone. We did not have the appropriate number of people doing the input. . . . All you had to do was watch CNN. It said a lot of new people have registered to vote. Lehigh County, which we often hear about here, had fifteen extra staffers working for Stacy Sterner in their voter registration. When I asked the question how many people we had over there and why we didn't have enough people, I was told we were in better shape than ever before. The truth of the matter is that extra staff did not show up there until after that conversation. . . . We did not have the people registered and in the actual voter book. Very many of those people did not make the actual voter book. So much of the problems we faced was because the judges of elections had to call in to find out if, in fact, John Cusick was actually allowed to vote here rather than just looking down at the book because the books were printed and names were still being added.

"People did not have their voter registration cards in time. As many of you heard, they had voter registration cards issued to them that said they were not eligible to vote for ten more days, which would mean that they still couldn't vote today.

"This was a screwup of epic proportions that didn't have to be because we knew this was happening. In every election prior to this, in the presidentials, we had a significant amount of extra staff there for the input. . . .

"The machines themselves were fine. We were having significant problems with people checking in. In one of the wards, the alphabet seems to have confounded one of the inspectors, who was having a hard time looking peoples' names up. In other cases, we just really need to get through that a lot faster. Not having names in the books made it much more difficult to find people."

Dertinger went on to claim again that the only reason the county added staff was because of his own complaints at the October 16 council meeting. "We didn't add staff until . . . I spoke to John [Stoffa].

Director of Administration John Conklin turned about fourteen shades of purple as Dertinger spoke, but made no response to this factually-challenged diatribe. Conklin detests politics. I'm not even sure he votes. But he prides himself on his operational skills, and was personally offended by Dertinger's inaccurate claims, some of which ended up in a Morning Call account that distorts what most of us would call a relatively smooth election, considering turnout.

2) The Election Help Timeline

Here's what happened, as explained by Conklin and Erney, who also supplied me with emails to back up their claims. For weeks before Dertinger ever opened his mouth, they were hard at work getting the information into a state database.

September 29: Voting Registrar Howie Erney and Deputy Debi Rumsey notice they are falling behind on entering new registered voters. Erney imposes mandatory OT and weekend shifts. He also asks Conklin for temporary help.

October 2: Three temps are hired from Manpower, with a starting date of October 6.

October 3: Erney and Rumsey ask for more help is needed. Arrangements are made to hire an additional 3 Manpower employees. These temporary employees work overtime, too.

October 6: Department of State portals begin to shut down, a recurring problem that makes data entry more difficult.

October 14: John Conklin asks for, and gets, help from numerous department employees under his supervision.

October 16: At least ten county employees and temps are doing data entry, and working overtime as well. Other county employees pitch in as schedules and department heads permit. On this date, elections commission chair Ken Kraft emails Conklin to complain only four people are doing data entry. Conklin sets Kraft straight. Dertinger complains about inadequate manpower at county council meeting. Stoffa sets Dertinger straight, or tries to do so.

October 19: Elections Commission chair Ken Kraft, in a testy email to Conklin, just happens to echo Dertinger's factually challenged concerns. He even hints Conklin could be sued. "Hope YOU don't incur a lawsuit for not getting it done."

On the day Dertinger complained, there were already ten county workers doing data entry and working OT as well. In addition, other employees were pitching in. Everything the elections office asked for was provided. Dertinger's claim that extra staff did not show to help until after he complained is simply false. The fact that the elections commission chair is repeating Dertinger's false information makes one wonder whether there is some collusion between the two.

3) Dertinger's False Claim That There Were 1,800 Fewer Voters in This Presidential Contest.

During a historic election, did Northampton County have fewer voters than four years ago? That would be a sad statement, if true, but it's not. Voting Registrar Howie Erney tells me that in the 2004 Presidential election, 126,668 votes were cast. This time around, unofficial results show 131,225. As might be expected, there were 4,557 more votes cast in this election. Dertinger needs a new calculator.

4) How did Obama's Election Protection Team Rate Northampton County?

At last Thursday's Council meeting, Dertinger referred several times to Obama's election protection team, and claimed the only reason they did not publicly condemn Northampton County was because they had no desire to embarrass a Democratic county exec. But Conklin, who was in contact with this team several times on election day, tells me they were "absolutely thrilled with the responsiveness of Northampton County."

5) How many people were calling in with problems?

If Northampton County's election was a "screw up of epic proportions," as Dertinger contends, that would mean a lot of calls for help. After 8 PM, there were only two calls. A report from the county's call center shows there were only 109 calls total, lasting an average of around 2 minutes.

6) The county has enough voting machines.

Council member John Cusick wanted to know whether we had enough machines, and in the right places, to do the job. "Definitely" is Voting Registrar Howie Erney's answer. In fact, the county has forty machines more in this election than in the last presidential race, when 256 lever machines were in use. In January, the county purchased 300 Advantage D-10 voting machines, supplied by Sequoia Voting Systems. These touch screen voting machines are almost identical in appearance to the old lever machines. 297 of them were in the field on election day. One machine is adequate for between 600 and 700 voters.

7) Big Poll Books - the real reason for long lines in a heavy turnout.

Obviously, the real reason for long lines is heavy turnout. But Erney learned some things that will make those lines move a lot more quickly.

"It's not the machines that are at fault - it's the poll books." Erney tells me that, although poll books should be purged once every five years, this has not happened within recent memory. As a result, these volumes are packed with voters who are deceased or who have moved. It slows down elections workers when they look for a voter's name. Voting machines remain idle when that happens. Around the end of the day, Erney decided to break the poll book into subparts and have lines for corresponding parts of the alphabet. Once he did that, things moved very quickly. Between 260 and 290 voters per hour were processed. "I've been at this for twenty-eight years, but always learn something new."

Erney credited elections workers in Allen Township for coming up with that answer.

8) Vertical v. Horizontal Ballots? Who the Hell Notices These Things?

According to council members John Cusick and Peg Ferraro, there are complaints about a vertical, as opposed to horizontal, ballot. Really? I have no idea what the hell they're talking about and certainly heard no complaints. Council unanimously adopted a resolution recommended a horizontal ballot in future elections.

John Conklin told council members that ballot design is pretty much a matter for the Elections Commission and Voter Registrar. Howie Erney confirms what Conklin told council, noting that the layout is similar to what was used in other counties.

I've got my own recommendation for Peg and John - turn your head. Then it will be horizontal.

9) Third party candidates located on far right side of the ballot.

Republican John Cusick, to his credit, spoke up for independents and third-party candidates.

"If you wanted to vote third party, it was way over on the right. There were two empty columns. It seemed like we were trying to keep people from considering third party candidates. I don't know if that was by design or by accident, but that's how it appeared."

Conklin told Cusick he would pass along those concerns, but Erney tells me state laws require third parties to be listed in alphabetical order, which is why they had to be located at the right side of the ballot.

There is little doubt in my mind that state law is designed to keep third parties candidates off ballots completely. When they somehow get on, state law requires a ballot that pretty much screws them.

Here's a draft sample I saw: Barack Obama - D; John McCain - R; Ralph Nader - wingnut.

10) Room For Improvement

Erney and Conklin both tell me there is plenty of room for improvement. Dividing poll books into subparts is one innovation that will become SOP in the next big election. Poll books need to be purged. Cell phones will be provided to every precinct in the next election.

But I'm not worried. Erney had the best of teachers, Dennis Benner. Erney told me, "It's all about the people, and doing right by them."

He's right. His responsibility is to the voters, not the political games of Charles Dertinger.

23 comments:

A.J.C. said...

At EHMS, they had the books separated alphabetically. The line there was long, but moved smoothly and consistently.

Perhaps, if anything, they could use one or two more voting machines.

I hope someone calls out Dertinger this week. He's losing it...

Anonymous said...

At Upper Milford (Lehigh County), the line was long but it moved smoothly and there were more than enough machines.

The only issue I saw was physical space that limited the # of people that could check in voters and send them over to the machines - that's where the bottleneck was.

Assuming they relocate voting to the old Kings Highway school soon, physical space will no longer be an issue and it'll move even more quickly.

The people at Upper Milford did a great job.

The Banker

Lady Rep said...

So! We have a Voter Reg office that acts non-partisan for the first time in several years and Dertinger wants to undermine it. Sounds like SOP to me.
Improving the process at the polls is just a matter of adjusting systems. Most of the problems related to voting occured with individual election boards at certain polls. There was also a bit of ego and personal agenda on some of those boards that had to be addressed which takes away from the great job that most did. That's where most of the problems were. Communication with Voter Reg was glitchy, but once again, just review the system in place and work out something with dedicated lines. Lastly, many voters were voting for the first time on the new machines (and probably won't for another four years) which adds its own layer of difficulty. I wonder how many complainers fall into that category?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lady Rep,

Dertinger not only wants to undermine the elections ofrfice, but is doing so with false information.

1) He claims less people voted in this election than in the last presidential - FALSE.

2) He claims the county only hired extra employees after he complained on 10/16 - FALSE.

3) He claims the election was a "screwup of epic proportions" - FALSE.

4) He claims the Obama election protection team were highly critical - FALSE.

Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Erney and Conklin both acknowledge that. But Dertinger's claims are baseless.

Anonymous said...

Dertinger wants to undermine anything that has Stoffa's name attached to it.

I'm surprised Charles has not tried to take credit for Stoffa's hip replacement.

Anonymous said...

My polling place had two precincts each with two machines assigned to them. The line for one precinct was out the door and other had 2 or 3 people.

This was an obvious waste of a machine and personnel.

WhetherVain said...

We had 5 machines at my district, but as previously noted, the bottleneck occurs at the POLL BOOKS where, one person at a time, you need to be processed.

The county give us our approximately 2000 voters in only 2 books seperated by last names A-to-L and M-to-Z.

As fate seemed to have it, we had an extraordinary turnout of folks with last names A-to-L - which meant that the WHOLE LINE was backed up behind that one majority inspector and we had lines the whoooooole day.

You can imagine that this left us with idle voting machines - as one person cannot process enough folks to keep 5 machines occupied.

I would make frequent trips (outside of the building) yelling out for folks with M-to-Z names and I was taken to task by some for allowing these folks to break-out of the line ahead of them.

I did my best to explain that I had another inspector and voting machines sitting totally idle because of the existing (and obvious) bottleneck in the A-L line. They still gretzed!

This new process proved fruitful as it kept our machines occupied. I don't know what else I could have done, but I thought idle resources serves no one!

The lookup-and-sign-the-book process is the slow link in the process.

Anonymous said...

Bernie,
Dertinger telegraphed his criticisms of the Administration's handling of this election in the Morning Call article that morning and yet by your account they had no answers to refute his claims at the council meeting. Is this the competence you speak off, maybe it took sometime to come up with good answers? If the office was properly staffed as you and Erney says why was it necessary to work forced OT. Lehigh wasn’t rushing at the end? How about the polling books were not complete on time. I tried calling and could not get through. Or even that many voters have complained about not getting absentee ballots including…wait for it…Ron Angle Jr. or is Angle now working for Hangman Dertinger? Sorry Bernie I too was at Thursdays meeting Dertinger questioned why the county was so far behind in voter registration entry and absentee ballot requests , which by your post we can all see was true. It seems from what he said he was trying to get more staff to do input, how horrible. I can now see you are deep in the tank for this administration. If Dertinger attacked the administration like Angle did you would have been in a frenzy. And as it turns out both Dertinger and Angle were on the right side Thursday, Stoffa and Co. have some explaining to do. More people should go to these meeting and not rely on Bernie’s pro-Stoffa accounts.

Anonymous said...

TO THOSE WHO MAY GET TO SEE ELECTIONS AGAIN, AND BE A POLL WORKER. You are allowed to break the book up into smaller sections, if you have the trained persons to handle the process of registration. Also, you can request extra help from the County to add people to help. This gets people through the line faster, and over to the machines. Done well, this keeps lines moving constantly, machines all in operation. In my district, they didn't do this, and had someone objecting to students, and three out of four machines were always empty, sometimes 4 out of 4!

Bernie O'Hare said...

WhetherVain,

You are an old pro at this. Excellent points! Is your precinct Lehigh County?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 2:55,

1) I agree that more people should attend council meetings. If they saw the circus that performs as the LV's second largest government, most of the partisan hacks would be ousted.

2) I have recordings of the last three council meetings and will load them here as soon as I convert the files to .mp3s. I am doing what the Northampton County hangmen are terrified to see happen - producing recordings of the meetings in which visitors can hear for themselves just how idiotic that gang tends to get.

3) Conklin did initially attempt to answer the concerns expressed by Cusick & Ferraro. He stopped when Dertinger threw his hissy fit, which was replete with falsehoods. Dertinger has no interest in answers. His sole purpose is to attempt to make Stoffa look bad.

4) When Angle makes points, he is usually right. Morover, he does not make palpably false remarks, as Dertinger did.

5) By the time Dertinger opened his mouth on Oct 16, there were already 10 county emplyees working on the new registrants and doing OT. They had been doing so for over two weeks, as the timeline indicates.

6) Angle's sole point on Thursday was that his son did not get his absentee ballot on time. That happens. Erney tells me that some of the requests for absentee ballots did not arrive in his office for 4 weeks.

7) I was at the Lehigh precinct and, no, they were not rushing at the end.

The simple truth is that it was a good election that coped nicley with the largest turnout in county history.

WhetherVain said...

Lehigh, yes...and the 4th largest district within Allentown city limits (going by voting results).

Knowing how we're organize here in PA (and NOT knowing how other states are organized), I wonder how the other states find, maintain and pay ELECTION STAFF over many days like they do!

They also appear to be using some automated way of accessing the voter roles in order to process folks (thus eliminating the time-consuming lookup-and-sign-the-book process).

Anonymous said...

Bullshit!!

The elegant term O'Hare loves to use. This election was not significantly larger than 2004, in fact only about 1% over all. Stop spinning for this incompetent boob.
The problem is that Stoffa and Company is a team of mediocre, at best, people. Stoffa replaces Ms. DePaul because she was appointed by Reibman. He puts together his own 'Hangman' illegitimate committee of election supporters to spread the myth of past election problems. The Election Board and Commission is the appropriate Agency, not a half-baked croony club.
So now we have a machine mechanic managing the Department, Conklin and Comapny with no experience telling tales. I love how these guys spoon feed you crap and you eat it. You claim Dertinger is all wrong. Yet you take the words of the Stoffa mob as Gospel.
Dertinger, ts right the election was mis-managed and they only got up to speed after Dertinger said something.
Stoffa's biggest problem is he has no platform, no original idea's; he never did. His entire campaign was anti-Reibman. He has only listened to whacko's and malcontents. As a result there has been no progress under his regime. Complete failure.

Anonymous said...

Are you people for real??? I am going to point out a few things just to state the obvious...

#1 Does anyone recoginze that this was an election of "epic" proportion??? Not in our recent history have we seen an election like this. Voter turnout was a record in many places across this country (and here in Northampton it was no exception).

#2 Most people were prepared to stand in line to vote. For those of you that didn't like it, that's too bad, you should have prepared better.

#3 As it is with most things, many people waited until the last minute to get their regisrations in. They deserve to have it get screwed up. Don't blame the voter's office workers. They can only work with what they are given. Don't blame the administration either. It's called personal accountability, people!

I know for a fact those people "busted their butts" to get everything ready for election day. Was it perfect, probably not. If there were back ups, they aren't the only ones responsible. The people running the polling stations have some of the burden. They control the crowd and how efficient it should run.

How about this idea... if you weren't happy about how things were done, try this crazy thing called VOLUNTEER! Instead of bitching about "how aweful it was" to stand in line, how about putting your money where your mouth is and help out. Maybe you could have helped instruct people to go into the right line, or passed out some water or crack a joke to make someone laugh. Instead of bitching about how bad the system is, why don't you try and make it better???

#4 And last but not least.... Voting is a PRIVLEDGE, not a RIGHT! People have died for this, people have been beaten just to have this honor.

People need to stop complaining about what is wrong and do something to make things right.

Instead of finger pointing, how about some creative ideas said with some compassion to help improve the situation.

You might say, "how dare you say this". Well, I DO dare because I served my country overseas to make sure you continue to have the "right" to vote.

And to others that have served to protect MY right to vote I say "Thank You".

(Oh by the way, I stood in line for an hour and a half, with a smile on my face!)

Anonymous said...

Charles Dertinger was on the Election Commission for ten years. He was the Commission Chairperson for most of that time. Franky, Charles has forgotten more about running elections than John Conklin knows. Last year during the Northampton County Crucible produced by John Stoffa. This was his hand picked witch hunt and it determined that the office was hopelessly flawed and predicted doomsday election day scenarios. If only they could get their wicked witch banished, well they did throw and bucket of water on her, and now magically everything in Voter Registration is fine. Except - as Dertinger points out it isn't. Stoffa failed, as he often does, to properly staff the office. Due to his failure, people who properly registered to vote were not affored that most sacred of privileges.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The comments from Anon 8:13 are both distortions and outright lies.

1) My comparison to 2004 is truthful, not spinning. It was necessary because Dertinger falsely claims that there were 1,800 fewer voters in this historic race than in 2004. That is an outright lie, and was made to suggest that the county actually discouraged people from voting, an outrageoius suggestion based on a falsehood. I have provided links to the number of people who voted in 2004 and last Tuesday. Contrary to Dertinger's fabrication, there 4,557 more votes cast in this election than in 2004.

2) Stoffa did not replace DePaul. Depaul was never terminated, but resigned for a job in the private sector. her replacement was not chosen by Stoffa, but by a partisan Elections Commission that is supposed to be a quasijudicial body.

3) The information supplied by Conklin is factual. He was able to back up his timeline with emails from different people that show what was happening at the time. The information he provided ius accurate. On the day that Dertinger was braying about the elections office having no help, there were ten people doing the input, and they were on OT. Once again, Dertinger was lying.

4) Howie Erney is a machine mechanic? Really? He was, as I recall, one of HRH DePaul's deputies. He has 28 years experience in conducting elections, and his experience in the field is an invalauble asset. The county is lucky to have him, and he'll be very happy to return to what he was doing if the Hangmen would like to put one of their goons in that position. He's just interested in doing a good job, and the disparaging way in which he is referred to demonstrates how Dertinger and his mob really feel about county workers. I've been warning the county workforce all along that Dertinger and McClure have no regasrd for the county workers and will screw any one of them to advance trhemselvews. This slam at Erney is a pretty convincing demonstration.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:034 continues the distortions.

The citizens advisory panel was an administrative committee designed for one and only one reason - to improve our elections. They were, as Stoffa noted, painful things to watch, like elephants giving birth.

Thanks to that outstanding body, we learned that we had actually gone thru an elections cycle with voting machines that had never been certified. We learned of all the problems w/ AVS, which was eventually decertified by the Department of State.

Conklin acted on the testimony during these hearings and made changes that improved NC elections.

Contrary to the assertion, the panel never acted as a witrch hunt, although HRH DePaul was quite the little drama queen, and insisted on personalizing everything.

When she resigned, it was for the priovate sector. That was her decision. She has been replaced by one of her deputies, a persaon w/ 28 years of experience. He wqas appointed by the Elections Commission, not Stoffa.

And as the timeline in my post makes abundantly clear, the office was properly staffed.

Dertinger just simply lied, and has been caught.

A.J.C. said...

It doesn't matter - you're just a renter. Now had you been a homeowner...

Anonymous said...

Stoffa'a committee was chaired by his political campaign chairman and had L.J. Bradt on it, who gave Stoffa over $3,000 for his race. Yea, they did the great job they were instructed to do.

This County has been without a rudder for three years.

By the way, voting is a RIGHT not a Privledge. Get it straight.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The county has been without a council for three years. It has been infested by partisan hacks who just want to hand out money to their pals and give themselves laptops.

The advisory panel was a nonpartisan group that included 2 Dems, 2 Rs, and a Green party member.

Stoffa's former campaign consultant, Russ Shade, was selected because of his familiarity w/ computers and software. L Jack Bradt, one of Stoffa's few campaign donors, was "rewarded" with a position on a very controversial task force that paid no salary and dealt with what you accurately call a right - the right to vote.

What's more, thanks to the work by these unpaid volunteers, elections improved in Northampton County.

What Stoffa wants to do is govern -what you want to do is play politics. Voters are not stupid, and unless you have gobs of money, be prepared to see big changes on council.

Stoffa said it best a few years ago. "There's nothing wrong with government. But sometimes, the wrong people are in government."

That certainly applies to Charles "Faithless Politician" Dertinger, who actually lies to fellow council members in a failed attempt to smear Northampton County's election.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes the wrong people are in government", well I have to agree.

Stoffa and his incompetent crew proved that. Fortunately next year the County can get the right people back in County government and forget these four years of 'Who's on first?, I don't know".

Anonymous said...

Stoffa screwed this up just like he scewed up Children and Youth. Now they have a huge deficit and they are going to expose kids to danger. Where is the outrage O'Hare?

Anonymous said...

Annon 8:01

I must disagree. Mr. Stoffa hires people to prevent those things, he cannot personaly watch everything.
No in this case the Director of Human Services dropped the ball, this should have been seen in early summer.

Mr. Stoffa is not personaly responsible for his Directors screw-up.