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.