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Inexperience and staff turnover led to Luzerne County’s election debacle, investigation finds

Luzerne County’s ballot paper shortage was not as widespread as original reports claimed and involved no malfeasance, the district attorney concludes.

Stacks of ballot paper were delivered to the foyer of the bureau of elections in Luzerne County on Nov. 8, 2022. On Election Day, polling places in Luzerne County started running out of ballot paper needed for voting machines. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

A ballot paper shortage in Luzerne County last fall — an almost singular stain on Pennsylvania’s otherwise smooth midterm elections — was caused by high staff turnover and loss of institutional knowledge, according to a long-awaited report from the county’s district attorney.

The report was released Wednesday, more than seven months after the election, and highlights staffing issues that have plagued the county for years. Luzerne District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said there is “no question” turnover was the primary issue, echoing findings from a February report by Votebeat and Spotlight PA

The report also detailed new information about the county’s scramble to deal with the paper shortage on Election Day and debunked rumors that the situation was intentional. The investigation also found that the problem was less widespread than initial reports suggested.

Crucially, the report examined and dismissed public claims that Republican areas had been specifically targeted by the paper shortages in order to suppress or disenfranchise Republican voters. 

“This would be about the stupidest way to try to criminally influence an election,” Sanguedolce said.

It was still early on Election Day last November when reports began trickling in that polling places in Luzerne County — a northeast Pennsylvania county near Scranton — were running out of paper. Luzerne County prints ballots at polling locations on Election Day, rather than ahead of time as is done in some other counties. 

As the day progressed, the reports escalated, and it initially appeared that up to a third of the county’s polling places were completely out of paper.

A county judge issued an order for polls to stay open two hours later than planned, and county officials ordered emergency paper wherever they could find it.

Voters were outraged, with dozens turning out to speak at a Board of Elections meeting a few days later. 

Many residents accused the county of intentional disenfranchisement and called for the resignation of the acting elections director. The incident drew state and national media attention to Luzerne, which had been plagued by other issues in recent elections. A congressional committee later held a hearing into the Luzerne paper shortages.

But until Wednesday, many of the details behind how it happened were opaque, as county officials repeatedly declined to answer questions until Sanguedolce’s investigation concluded. 

How the problems played out

Sanguedolce’s report starts and ends by highlighting the staff’s limited experience level. 

The Luzerne County manager had taken on the job just four months before the election. The division head overseeing the election bureau started her role 67 days before Election Day. Beth Gilbert McBride, the acting elections director at the time, had started with the county just three months and 25 days before the election. She had been hired as deputy director but the director at the time, Michael Susek, resigned in August, shortly after Gilbert McBride started.

The longest-tenured staffer, Emily Cook, had 14 months experience on Election Day and was filling in as deputy director.

Sanguedolce’s report found that the cause of the ballot paper shortage were part of a complicated series of events that led up to and continued throughout Election Day.

Luzerne uses a voting system referred to as “ballot-on-demand” voting. In this type of system, used by other counties in Pennsylvania, voters make their selection on an electronic ballot-marking device, which then prints out a ballot with their selections on it. Voters then review the printout and feed it into a tabulator.

In some other counties, ballots are printed ahead of time and hand-marked by voters. Ballot-on-demand systems, by nature, require sufficient paper at polling places.

Prior to the election, election officials knew they had relatively little paper on hand. In a text to Gilbert McBride, Cook said the county was running low on paper, but that she didn’t think it necessary to order more for the November election. Gilbert McBride nonetheless said she would order paper, but did not seem to have followed through and done it.

The report also pointed out that after the 2021 primary — when Republican ballots displayed on voting machine screens were mistakenly labeled as Democratic — an outside consultant called The Elections Group had developed a timeline of tasks to be completed by election office employees in preparation for the 2022 election, including ordering paper and making sure enough of it made it to each polling site. 

It appears the timeline was not followed, and it is unclear whether Gilbert McBride was aware of it.

The county did have ballot paper at its warehouse, though it may have been the wrong type. When reports of paper shortages began coming into the elections office, county officials went to the warehouse to retrieve it — but then spent much of the rest of the day in time-consuming, conflicting conversations about whether they could use it.  

The paper at the warehouse was 100-pound paper, which refers to how much a stack of 500 sheets weighs. 

Workers loaded that 100-pound paper into county vehicles and began driving it to polling locations with paper shortages.

But after the paper was delivered, Dominion advised the county to instead use 80-pound paper, saying that if the 100-pound paper had been stored at the warehouse for too long, it could have absorbed moisture that could then cause the machines to jam.

So the county workers returned to the polling places, retrieved the paper they had previously delivered, and waited for a shipment of 80-pound paper the county had purchased via emergency orders from multiple vendors that same day. They met a delivery truck in a parking lot off a highway around 5 p.m., and then delivered the 80-pound paper to polling places.

Whether the running around for 80-pound paper was necessary in the first place is a point of contention.

Dominion had initially assured  the county that either weight of paper was fine when they purchased their machines, and county officials tested the 100-pound paper when they first arrived at the warehouse on Election Day. They found it operated properly when used with voting equipment that was in storage.

And as the 80-pound paper delivery was on its way, an official with the Pennsylvania Department of State called the county to say the 100-pound paper could be used if it was all that was available, but the county decided not to switch courses again.

Report debunks election rumors

The report also addressed inaccurate information circulating in the wake of the shortage about its causes and effects.

Despite claims that a third of precincts ran out of paper or suffered a stoppage of voting, the investigation revealed — through interviews with nearly every judge of elections — that only 16 of the county’s 143 polling places ran out of paper, and switched to either emergency or provisional ballots “such that voting was not fully interrupted.” Four election judges did report a full stoppage of voting, though it isn’t clear for how long. 

The investigation also found no evidence that machines were tampered with, had paper removed from them, or that county officials deliberately failed to order paper, all specific claims raised in public settings or directly to investigators.

Sanguedolce also said he was frustrated by witnesses at a Republican-led congressional hearing on the shortage earlier this year who repeated claims that the shortage was an intentional effort to disenfranchise Republican voters.

“If you watched that hearing, what was most frustrating for us … the testimony was something that would never remotely be allowed in court; it was so unreliable,” Sanguedolce, a Republican, said.

Sanguedolce said that while investigating election matters, he’s repeatedly dealt with people who claim they saw or heard about something suspicious, but who then never follow up with law enforcement, are found to have misconstrued a report from someone else, or are simply wrong.

The report made a point of identifying the harm that unsupported allegations can cause, while simultaneously explaining why the results of the investigation took so long to produce.

“The release of false or incomplete information which is debunked months later, can cause an interim, unwarranted distrust in the voting process,” the report said, adding the investigation was ‘lengthy, but methodical,” to make sure it didn’t promote false information. 

What comes next

The question of how to fix Luzerne’s elections is beyond Sanguedolce’s authority. But he did say he was in favor of a proposal that has recently been gaining traction in Harrisburg, calling for some type of required training or manual for election directors.

At acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt’s confirmation hearing last month, Schmidt and state Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) agreed there is a need for a more formalized training process or manual for new election directors. High turnover in election jobs has plagued not just Luzerne, but much of the state and nation in recent years. 

At  a May meeting of the Joint State Government Commission’s Election Law Advisory Board, a bipartisan entity tasked with making legislative recommendations, members debated what to include in a recommendation to the legislature regarding formalized training for election officials.

Sanguedolce said such training would be a “terrific idea,” adding, that “there’s really no reason to not have uniform standards so that if, say, Luzerne County lacks the institutional knowledge, why can’t we call up to Scranton and get it from Lackawanna County?”

Lombardo, the Luzerne County Council vice president, noted there is some optional training from the Department of State, but it is limited and technically complicated to access.

Lombardo said any state training would need to be flexible and not interfere with county control of elections, as not every county uses the same voting systems.

“I think that maybe creating a guideline may be helpful in that respect, but I am personally not for state control in elections,” he said. 

He agrees that turnover was the primary issue in Luzerne’s 2022 debacle, but said that tensions between council council and the election board — which both have varying degrees of oversight on the elections bureau — may have also contributed to the turnover issue.

A ballot referendum which would give the council more control over election board appointees is slated for this year’s November ballot, and while Lombardo thinks these are mostly two separate issues, the referendum could perhaps help by lessening tensions. 

Robert Morgan, a former Luzerne County elections director who held the role in 2021, was not surprised by the investigation’s findings.

“It was not some grand conspiracy or planned effort, it was just due to a lack of training and a lack of experience in the organization,” he said.

He’s hopeful that the situation will improve as the office’s current officials gain experience. But he also agrees that some type of training manual with specific dates laid out would be useful, since previously all of that information has been kept in election directors’ heads.

“There’s always so much open to interpretation, because I don’t think we really get the preparation that is required for such an important administrative duty,” he said. “It seems it was just someone who didn’t check a box on a list, and that can have an outsized effect, especially in this time of lower trust in our institutions.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

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