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.
"Some of the election vendors had great products," said Steve Excell, Washington's assistant secretary of state.
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 meetings with Microsoft that included representatives from the four EMS vendors and about 10 county auditors or members of their IT staffs, Excell said.
For most county elections officials, however, developing the portal didn't require a great deal of work, said Tom Godkin, assistant elections supervisor of Clark County, Wash.
"Our information was already resident in our county database," Godkin said. "It was just a matter of the vendors working with the state to map how the information was going to fit into the state's system with four different vendors."
Washington state launched the VRDB in December 2005. For Clark County, it hasn't changed the procedures for running elections, and allows the county to keep its database much cleaner, Godkin said.
Before the VRDB, each of Washington's 39 counties maintained its own voter registration data, and no one coordinated this information across county lines. If a person from King County moved to Pierce County and registered to vote there without informing his old election office, his name would appear on the lists in both places.
After the statewide VRDB deployment, the state Elections Division used the system to identify voters who were registered in two counties.
"We found 35,445 duplicate voter registrations," Excell said.
The state also checked its roll against the Social Security Administration's Death Index, allowing counties to purge 19,579 deceased individuals from their lists in the VRDB's first three months of operation.
Doing these audits on a state database safeguards the integrity of elections, Excell said. "It eliminates the potential for abuse -- somebody picking out that someone's dead or moved away, and starting to vote in their name. It removes all temptation."
The state, though, does not purge duplicate registrations on its own. Instead it sends each county a report listing apparent duplicates, so county officials can verify them.
"We had to go through each record and verify that the John B. Smith they identified was the same John B. Smith we had in our system," Godkin said of the names in the state's initial duplicate audit in 2006. The state and counties continue to follow this procedure as new duplicates appear.
Eventually the state will also conduct quarterly checks to identify felons who should be removed from the rolls and reinstate ex-felons who are eligible once again. That function is currently on hold pending a decision on a lawsuit challenging the state's requirements for re-enfranchisement.
Phase two of the project, a two-year effort to develop the state's voter registration portal, started in February 2006.
The aim is to create a place on the state's Web site and each county's Web site where residents can download and print voter registration forms, note address changes and conduct other voting-related transactions. Citizens will also be able to review which elections they have voted in or missed, find out what races they can vote on in the current election, view candidates' statements, and on election night, see the results of local and statewide contests.
"The whole Web portal process will interact with numerous databases, one of which will be the voter registration database," Excell said. "We want it to be seamless."
Visitors to any county's Web site will be able to conduct the same kinds of transactions and view the same kinds of information, but each experience will be tailored to the location. For example, a county will display election results relevant to its own voters, and supplement English-language voter registration forms in various languages to suit its population -- perhaps Chinese in one county and Spanish in another.
While all counties will receive this information from the same source, each display will share the look and feel of the county's own Web site. Microsoft uses its Content Management Server and Master Pages software to provide multiple looks and feels for the same content, O'Neil said.
One of the first orders of business for the VRP project is to develop Web sites for some smaller counties that did not have "a serious Web presence" in the past, Excell said. Counties that already have sophisticated Web sites will simply take advantage of the state's back-end infrastructure to import the functions they want to add to their sites.
Although the deadline for establishing a HAVA-compliant VRDB has passed, some states don't have a live centralized database yet. Excell said the federal government has been lenient with those states, as long as they've been able to show they're making progress.
Several states have borrowed individual features from Washington state's system, with New York showing particular interest.
"The New York State Elections Commission has been out several times," Excell said. "There are several features in our system that match their system nicely."