Washington Uses Web to Ease Voter Registration

Citizens can register to vote online, print voter-registration forms in several languages and view personalized information.

by / January 12, 2009

Visit Washington state's home page and you'll easily find the voter-information section - a sterling example of how software, hardware and the Internet converge to make it easier for citizens to exercise their civic rights. Users can register online, print voter-registration forms in several languages and view personalized information like candidates' statements and online address change options. The creation of these features was spurred by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) - a federal law that changed how Americans vote.

When President George W. Bush signed HAVA on Oct. 29, 2002, he authorized the federal government to modernize voting systems for the 21st century. HAVA provided federal government funds for states to make the upgrades, and the federal government also created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to set standards for how states administer elections. The act mandated that states replace outdated voting methods and give citizens the option to vote when officials can't verify eligibility. HAVA also required states to establish a statewide voter-registration database, voter-identification procedures and administrative procedures for complaints.

According to a report released by the Election Assistance Commission in July 2008, the federal government distributed nearly $650 million between April 2003 and August 2003 under Title I, Sections 101 and 102 of HAVA. Section 101 mandated that states receive funds to finance voter education programs and state election personnel training activities; Section 102 required the federal government to finance states' replacement of punch card or lever voting machines. The federal government also distributed more than $2.3 billion between June 2004 and December 2005; each state had to contribute at least 5 percent matching funds of this allocation, which mandated that the federal government distribute money annually toward state election overhaul efforts.


Road to Compliance

Each state devised a plan for how it would use the funds. Washington released its plan in 2003, soon after the president authorized HAVA. Although the act had many requirements, those of Title III - which required states to adopt uniform election technology and nondiscriminatory administration standards - were the minimum requirements states could fulfill to comply with HAVA.

Washington received almost $6.8 million from the federal government as required by Section 102. HAVA stated that these particular funds were also for establishing uniform voting standards statewide. The voter-registration database (VRDB) and accompanying county election-management systems were Washington's answer to these mandates.

Washington state officials decided they could meet these requirements by creating a comprehensive VRDB designed to interact with county election-management systems and the equipment they used to record votes at the county level. The state partnered with Microsoft, which supplied tools - including Microsoft .NET, BizTalk and SQL Server - to build the VRDB in-house. It was operating by Jan. 1, 2006, the deadline to meet HAVA requirements.

"As we met with various election software vendors, we came to the realization there's really no such thing as out of the box because every software solution needs to be customized to meet each state's laws, regulations and court mandates," said Steve Excell, the assistant secretary of state. Washington needed a customizable solution, a standard, rigid solution wouldn't cut it.

"Their products were not extensible, and we were looking at giving voters access to information like their voting history, polling places, ballot drop boxes and customized information that you could get on the Internet." In IT circles, an extensible system is one that's flexible and can adapt to specialized needs.

Washington also wanted greater control over how the state's VRDB would communicate with all 39 counties. When the database was created, all county voter registration lists were consolidated into the one the VRDB now contains. The reasoning was that one list would improve election accuracy and reduce voter fraud. It turned out they were right. As of Feb. 1, 2006, 3,387 duplicate registrations and 5,244 registrations of deceased citizens were investigated and canceled because of the system. The VRDB checks its data

against records from the state's Department of Licensing to help verify who's eligible to vote. The system also removes felons and the deceased from the eligible voter list, which requires the VRDB to work with the state's Department of Corrections, Department of Health and the Social Security Death Index.

The database's ability to weed out ineligible voters will be useful when verifying votes from people who cast provisional ballots - a HAVA requirement. A provisional ballot lets voters cast a ballot even when county officials are unsure they're registered voters. The provisional ballot also comes into play when voters forget their photo identification or other credentials, required by the counties.


Flexibility and Control

Washington wanted counties to have flexibility when handling ballots. It was up to each county - to a point - to decide what type of machines and systems to use to record and count votes. Counties had a choice of four vendors.

"We elected to build our own system - our own voter-registration database - for several reasons. We've long since concluded that data's data - it's extensible," Excell said. "Web services permit interoperability, so our counties can keep their existing election-management systems. We didn't have to take 39 counties and convert them to one new system. In fact, we told the counties they had only two requirements to meet."

The state required counties to have vendor-supported election-management software, which had to interface with major enterprise-scale databases like Microsoft SQL or Oracle. These election-management systems receive votes electronically, and they also, per HAVA, give voters the option to review their votes before finalizing them in case there's a mistake. Voter information is sent from counties to the state database on the back end through Web services.

"Now all this interaction between the county and state system is in near real time. It's not exactly 100 percent real time because there is a slight delay within reason, from a few seconds to possibly a few minutes," said Don Quach, the Washington Election Information Project and VRDB technical manager.

"The main reason we did this is because we wanted to be able to keep the system and the communication reliable and allow for the system to process the large amount of transactions that potentially could be coming from all 39 counties within the state," Quach said.

Allowing the counties to retain some control over how they receive votes, makes complying with HAVA simpler for Washington. "From my perspective, a lot of other states chose to have a big-bang, centrally administrated state solution that didn't work because it didn't fit with what the counties needed - each county having a different requirement set," said Ron O'Neil, a Microsoft senior architect. "If you have 10 million people in your county, you're really quite different than if you have just a half a million people in your county, and so it's really hard to create a single, central solution that satisfies everybody."

It also might have been more expensive and laborious if every Washington county had been forced to fit one massive solution.

"I think the key point is that the different counties did not have to replace their existing databases but instead they were linked through a SQL database using Web services, XML and BizTalk," said Gail Thomas, general manager of Microsoft's state and local group. "So it wasn't this big, monolithic, out-of-the-box solution. It allowed people to leverage their existing technology investments, and our technology's really helped provide the glue."


More Work to Do

The VRDB, successful as it is, was only part of Washington's voting-system upgrade. The second phase - known as the Washington Election Information Project is currently under way. After the completion of the VRDB in early 2006, the state implemented online voting registration and MyVote, a Web-accessible program where citizens can update addresses, access information or perform functions like checking voting status and viewing polling place information.

"Because we have the voter registration [database] completed, we can do additional things, such as allow more information to be available to the general public," Quach said.

Some of phase two's implementations benefit smaller Washington counties, such as those that didn't have a Web presence to house their election-information pages, he said. Washington used Microsoft Office SharePoint Server and Content Management Server to connect their sites to the state system.

The work will likely continue. "I would certainly say it's going to be an ongoing effort because there are always legislatively mandated changes to voting laws, so I think there will be other work to be done," O'Neil said.


Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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