EASTON, Pa. — It was a few minutes after the polls closed here 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 Mr. Kassis winning narrowly, 26,142 to 25,137, over his opponent, the 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, the chairman of the Northampton County Democrats, who, along with Ms. Snover, was among the observers as county officials worked through the night to count the paper ballots by hand.
The snafu in Northampton County did not just expose flaws in both 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, given how faith in American elections has never been more fragile. 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 have never been more crucial.
“There are concerns for 2020,” Ms. 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.”