Washington’s Election System Has County Officials Concerned

Counties across Washington state are rushing to enter a backlog of voter registration data into a new system — one that’s struggling to handle the influx of traffic — ahead of a mid-July deadline.

by Joseph O'Sullivan, The Seattle Times / July 8, 2019
Shutterstock/NewFabrika

(TNS) — County officials across Washington are racing to enter a backlog of voter-registration data into a new statewide elections system in time to get ballots printed and mailed by mid-July, for the Aug. 6 primary.

That backlog — information such as new registrations and changes of address for more than 16,000 voters in King County alone — comes after voter databases shuttered for about a month while the state transitioned to the new VoteWA system.

The software program is intended as a statewide voter-information database to replace the less centralized systems currently used among Washington’s 39 counties, which administer elections. VoteWA allows election administrators to see voter changes made across the state in real-time, which will help implement Washington’s new same-day voter-registration law. That law is now in effect for the Aug. 6 primary.

But now, as election workers try to make up for lost time, they are finding the VoteWA system slowing to a crawl — and sometimes entirely shut down.

On June 28, state officials had to take VoteWA, which now handles all Washington voter data, offline for the whole day, a Friday, and into the weekend.

The situation prompted King County Elections Director Julie Wise to send home eight temporary elections workers who had shown up that Friday to help enter voter data.

VoteWA — which has drawn scrutiny from Wise and some other elections officials after problems were discovered during testing last month — was down again Wednesday for a shorter period of time, according to auditors in Clark and Mason counties.

Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire said that when the system has worked during the past two weeks, VoteWA has often run slowly.

“I would say the times that there are issues with system slowness exceed the times where it is working properly,” said McGuire, who at one recent point had a backlog of 500 voter registrations to type into the system.

“And when something that takes 10 seconds in your former system is taking a minute-plus in the new system, and you can’t do anything else, you’re sitting there looking at the little wheel,” said McGuire, who earlier in his career served as deputy secretary of state for Oregon. “There are only so many minutes in a single day.”

McGuire and other officials must get their voter information — such as addresses and the specific races taking place in each precinct — to vendors that format and print ballots before they go in the mail late next week.

McGuire has already missed his first deadline to get voter information to his vendor, he said, and “Normally it would have gone already.”

King County has shipped preliminary data, and has until Tuesday to send final data to the printer, according to Wise.

If problems continue, however, Wise said, “There could be a delay in ballots getting out.”

The issues are the latest twist with the system, which Secretary of State Kim Wyman approved for use for the August primary despite objections by Wise and a handful of other elections officials last month.

The Secretary of State’s Office has said many of the issues found in testing — which included apartment numbers missing from voter addresses — have been fixed.

But the problems so alarmed Wise that she has decided to use parts of King County’s old elections system for the primary. Auditors for Spokane and Thurston counties have also said they are employing temporary “workarounds” to handle some aspects of the election.

Wyman has said that even as she understands frustrations about the $9.5 million project, the whole idea is to refine the system as it gets put into use.

“The project is exactly where it’s supposed to be,” said Wyman, adding later: “That’s how we’re finding out the things we need to fine-tune.”

Assistant Secretary of State Mark Neary said that Friday’s shutdown happened after a developer on the system “rebooted a server at an inopportune time, and that caused the system to go down.”

On Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s Office sent an email to counties alerting them that the system shutdown may have caused a problem with 75 voter-registration files and provided some counties with a list of individuals’ information that needed to be double-checked, according to emails obtained by The Seattle Times.

King, Pierce and Snohomish counties were among those with voter registrations potentially affected by the shutdown, according to that email. The others were Benton, Clark, Kittitas, San Juan, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom and Yakima counties.

As for VoteWA’s slowness issues, Neary said the project team is monitoring and looking for ways to fix them, adding, “It’s part of the tuning process.”

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said she wasn’t worried about the voter-registration glitch, because such things happen with new systems and the Secretary of State’s Office has been quickly working through problems.

VoteWA’s slowdown issues, were “a bit of a struggle this past week,” Weikel said Thursday, but her election workers have been able to manage the backlog.

While she’s confident ballots will get out to voters on time, Weikel said, she’s also anxious about how the system will work as completed ballots return to elections officials, and how the implementation of same-day voter registration unfolds.

Elections officials across the state say they look forward to using VoteWA once all the bugs are ironed out.

They note that since ballots are counted on machines that are not related to VoteWA, there is no risk of primary-election contests being incorrectly counted.

Meanwhile, county elections workers — a generally risk-averse breed — have backup plans to make sure they can properly conduct the election if problems arise.

“We are extremely confident in our ability to conduct this year’s primary using VoteWA,” said Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey. “We believe that the election will have … accurate results with accurate integrity.”

But Clark County also has wrestled with VoteWA system troubles, said Kimsey, including its going offline for a period on Wednesday.

Elections workers there were scheduled to be at work July 4 as well as Saturday to help get ballot information ready for the printers, he added.

Kimsey, Wise and Neary have all recommended that voters who don’t get a ballot and feel they should have should contact their county elections officials.

©2019 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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