Hundreds of unregistered Montgomery County residents may have been allowed to cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, the county's chief election official said Wednesday.
And as Voter Services Director Joseph Passarella described it, that decision, made by a low-level staffer, eventually morphed into an unwritten policy that mistakenly added more than 3,000 people to the county's voter rolls over the next three years.
"I'm not trying to make excuses," he told the county's three-member Election Board at a special hearing. "The decision that was made was a big decision to make without seeking advice from me. But ultimately, as head of the department, it was my responsibility to know what was going on."
Passarella's statements came five days after the county issued a statement conceding it had accidentally inflated its voter rolls for years by adding people who might never have intended to register at all.
As Passarella struggled to explain the mix-up to officials, his answers indicated he had been unaware of a growing problem in his office.
The confusion began, he said, with the 2008 race, which drew thousands of first-time voters to the polls. That year, hundreds arrived at Montgomery County polling places claiming to be registered only to find they weren't on the county rolls, Passarella said.
Many came with receipts indicating they had signed up to vote through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's motor-voter program, a computerized system that allows users to register to vote or update their registrations while applying for or making changes to driver's licenses.
"There was such a high volume of calls on this that my staff thought there must be a mistake with the motor-voter system," he said. "They allowed them to vote."
Passarella said Wednesday that he was not aware at the time that his employees permitted those voters to cast ballots. Nor did he know, he said, that they continued to add people to the rolls based on motor-voter output for the next three years.
When residents change their driver's license information on the state Department of Transportation system, they are offered the option to update their voter registration at the same time. For those already registered to vote, the process works fine.
But because the motor-voter program can't tell if a person is registered or not, it will allow users to update voter registration addresses even if they aren't signed up to vote. The computer prints out a receipt indicating those changes regardless of whether they are accepted, Passarella said.
The data is sent to the county Voter Services office, where employees are supposed to ignore update requests from those not already on the voter rolls.
But after the 2008 experience, a low-level staffer decided to start registering these people. Eventually, that procedure worked its way into training for other employees, Passarella said.
But at Wednesday's hearing, Election Board members seemed more surprised that it took three years and the intervention of an outside agency to point the problem out.
And even after Passarella knew his office was to blame for the registration errors, it wasn't until the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a news release Friday blaming human error for a statistically improbable rise in independent voter registrations in the county that he brought it to the board's attention.
"I feel personally misled," said Election Board Chairman Joseph M. Hoeffel III. "I think it hurts the credibility of county government."
Passarella had few answers on how to avoid such problems in the future. When asked what he was doing to correct the training of his staff, he said: "We've already spoken about reviewing what everyone's doing."
The board ordered Passarella to return to it in a week with a plan to address the problems in his office.
Meanwhile, both he and the board members agreed that none of these issues posed a significant problem in Tuesday's primary. Only 13 percent of the county's electorate turned out to vote.
"We over-included too many people in the registration rolls, many of whom didn't realize they were registered in the first place," Passarella said. "It wouldn't have disenfranchised anyone."