July 31, 2006 By Merrill Douglas
As part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, Congress stipulated that every state must operate a centralized voter registration database (VRDB). Rather than relying on county election officials to maintain voter rolls, states must now use a single system to organize current information on who is eligible to vote and where.
In Washington state, election officials could have chosen a packaged solution to meet the Jan. 1, 2006 deadline for complying with HAVA's VRDB requirement. But they opted for a different approach.
But state officials wanted to do more than simply abide by the letter of the law.
For several years now, Washington residents have been visiting the state's Web portal to conduct e-government transactions, such as buying fishing licenses, renewing auto registrations or applying for unemployment insurance.
"We saw the voter registration database, and light bulbs went on," Excell said.
This new resource could fuel a whole range of e-commerce transactions to benefit voters and local election officials.
"We wanted a platform that could be expanded and go to more of a portal/information sharing system in the future," he said.
None of the off-the-shelf VRDB systems offered the extensions Washington needed to create a voter registration portal (VRP), so the Office of the Secretary of State decided to build its own. Secretary of State officials brought in Microsoft Consulting Services to work with their in-house IT staff on a system that would collect voter registration data from the counties, check new registrations for validity, note address changes, identify duplicate registrations, and expunge names from the rolls when citizens died or became ineligible to vote.
While maintaining the election rolls, the state would also share all this data with the counties, so local officials could use it to prepare for elections.
No Traumatic Change for Counties
As Washington state officials embarked on the VRDB project, they decided against mandating counties to invest in new software to accommodate the state system.
"We told the counties, 'You may keep [the] current election management system [EMS] you use to prepare your poll books and absentee ballots if you can meet these two requirements,'" Excell said.
One requirement was that the county system couldn't be an orphan; it had to be supported by its vendor. The second was that the system be able to exchange data with an Oracle or SQL database.
As it turned out, four EMS vendors offered software that met these requirements, and nearly all of the state's 39 counties were already using one of those systems. The few that weren't easily migrated to one of the four approved systems, Excell said.
To allow the VRDB to exchange data with four different vendors' systems, the state employed Web services to enable different applications, using different data formats, to exchange information. Software supporting the state's system includes Microsoft's .NET platform, BizTalk Server and SQL Server.
"We established XML transaction sets that described the possible activities that could be done by any of the election management system vendors," such as enrolling a new voter or noting a change of address, said Ronald O'Neil, Microsoft's principal consultant on the project. Then each of the EMS vendors wrote an interface permitting those transactions to flow back and forth between its own product and the state's VRDB.
The development team did similar work with other organizations that needed to exchange data with the VRDB. For example, when the state system receives a new voter registration, it automatically checks that data against the state Licensing Department's drivers' licenses database to verify the voter's identity.
Throughout the project, the state held regular
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