New voting system parks primary election concerns

Is VoteWA ready for its debut, live and untested?

The men and women responsible for running elections in Washington’s 39 counties are nervous that something, or several, will go awry with the Aug. 6 primary.

Right now, county auditors are wrestling with the slowdowns and bugaboos of a sparkling new $9.5 million statewide elections system known as VoteWa.

It’s got them worried a voter may not get a ballot. Or it might be sent to the wrong address.

Counting ballots may go slower. And when the last bit of election record-keeping is done, some voters may not get credited for their participation.

Auditors insist the electorate shouldn’t be worried because they’re confident final results will be 100 percent accurate.

But those who shared concerns with lawmakers July 9 didn’t sound very reassuring.

“This project is not ready for our voters. It really isn’t,” an impassioned King County Auditor Julie Wise told members of the Senate state government committee. “We need to go through a mock election. We need to test the system.”

Wise, whose operation serves roughly 1.3 million registered voters, rattled off problems she’s encountered like addresses for thousands of voters not getting properly inputted from the old system. Or, when they did a trial of counting ballots, it took 90 minutes to scan 300.

For some hurdles, they have to find a way to work around it, she said. All counties are doing this, she said.

“I am not confident in VoteWa but I am 150,000 percent confident in my staff and election administrators across the state,” she said. “Voters should feel confident in the election system.”

Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said she wishes there had been more time and more testing of VoteWa before it went live. There’s no turning back at this point, she said.

“We’re kind of going on a prayer and hopefully we will make it through this election,” she said.

VoteWa is a huge technological upgrade. Through the magic of software, all county election operations are gaining access to the same database of voter information in real time.

When functioning properly, election workers in Everett, Spokane and Yakima should to be able to sign on and, at the same moment, know if there is a new registered voter in Tacoma or if a current voter moved to a new address in Zillah.

This is critically important because Washington’s same-day voter registration law kicks in this election. On Aug. 6, a person will be able to walk up to the counter of the Snohomish County auditor’s office in Everett, register to vote and cast a ballot on the spot.

If the new system works as intended, an election worker will know immediately if that person is already registered somewhere, or not. And so will their counterparts in the other 38 counties.

With this election, auditors have had to ditch their old systems — with which they were very comfortable — and shift to VoteWA.

It’s been a painful transition. Getting in and out of the system is slow. It’s been down a bunch of times. At one point, it was offline for a couple weeks to upload information from the old county databases. Auditors are still working to make sure everything got migrated correctly and are dealing with the blanks that they find. There were a couple attempts to run mock elections but they fizzled.

“Things have gone wrong,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman told the committee Tuesday. More problems will likely surface and need resolving before the primary is in the books, she predicted.

There was a seminal moment at the end of May when the transition might have been delayed.

A 12-person committee of auditors and state elections officials that is monitoring the implementation met to discuss the progress. Five of the eight auditors on it voted to not go live for this election. Wyman’s four staff members and three auditors wanted to proceed. Absent unanimity, it fell to her to decide whether to apply the brakes.

She decided not to do so. She said she knows every county auditor has concerns, but VoteWA is more robust and far more secure against potential cyber attacks than the legacy county systems, she said.

And, if you are going to make a move like this, an off-year primary when turnout is traditionally low is the best time to do so, she reasoned.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Wyman said after the meeting. “I have full faith in the system.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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