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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Nearly 7,000 Washington Voters Will Get Last Minute Ballots Due To Motor Voter Error

Washington Department of Licensing
An error in Washington state's Motor Voter system means nearly 7,000 Washington voters will receive specially processed ballots ahead of next week's special election.

This story has been updated.

A batch of late-arriving ballots is going out to nearly 7,000 Washington voters in advance of next Tuesday’s special election. That’s because of an error in the state’s Motor Voter system that allows people to register to vote when they get a drivers license.

Washington’s Department of Licensing said a software error prevented Motor Voter information from being transmitted to the Secretary of State’s office. The error affects people who changed their names on their driver’s license and in the process were assigned a new license number.

The Department of Licensing said it identified and fixed the error in late January, but it’s just now being made public.

“We worked closely with the Office of the Secretary of State to identify and resolve this issue quickly,” Department of Licensing Director Pat Kohler said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

The Secretary of State’s office said most of the people who are affected by the Motor Voter error were already registered to vote. But election officials did identify 6,969 people who were not. The vast majority of them, 5,791, are women. 

The Department of Licensing and the Secretary of State’s office plan to work together to send those voters specially processed ballots so they can vote in next week’s special election for school levies and other ballot measures.

“We are working closely with county election officials to ensure that these voters receive their February ballot in time for next week’s election,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman said in a statement.

Wyman added that her elections staff will conduct daily tests going forward to confirm that Motor Voter registrations are being transmitted to the Secretary of State. The Department of Licensing also plans to conduct daily reconciliations. 

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Kohler said the coding error could date to 2006 and that as many as 25,000 Motor Voter registrations might have been affected since 2011.

The Department of Licensing first learned it might have a problem last December when a county elections administrator changed her name and got a new driver's license, but then noticed her voter registration information did not update. At the time, IT staff at the Department of Licensing thought the problem was a human error. The software error wasn't detected until late January. That's when top officials at the Department of Licensing were notified, according to Kohler.

“We want to share with you that we regret the error has occurred,” Kohler said. “This really emphasizes the need for the modernization of our system." Department of Licensing plans to upgrade its back-end computer system later this year. 

With one week to go until Election Day, the discovery of nearly 7,000 unregistered voters sent county election officials scrambling to get the individuals entered into the system and a ballot in the mail to each of them.

"Our focus today is to get these folks registered so that they can participate in the upcoming election on Tuesday," said state Elections Director Lori Augino. She acknowledged concern about whether there is enough time for county officials to do this work and issue all of the ballots before next Tuesday. 

The next step, said Augino, will be to do a full audit to determine if there are other problems with the Motor Voter system. "We're not going to stop here," Augino said. "We want to see a list of every single transaction in DOL's system that says they've asked to register to vote."

Asked if this error could have changed the outcome of close elections over the years, Augino said she couldn't say, but that the situation was "troubling."

"If there was an issue, I can't go back in time and change the outcome of any of those elections," Augino said noting that there's a short window between Election Day and when the outcome of an election is certified.

Washington voters can check to make sure they are registered and their information is correct at Voters can also use that portal to download a replacement ballot.

The news of the Motor Voter error comes on the heels of a report last month that the Washington Department of Licensing had been providing personal information about undocumented licensed drivers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The story, first reported by the Seattle Times, led to the resignation of a top licensing official and resulted in a new requirement that ICE obtain a court order to obtain personal information from licensing for “immigration-related investigations.”

The revelation about problems with the legacy Motor Voter system also comes as majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature have been working on a number of bills to make it easier to register to vote.

In December 2015, Governor Jay Inslee announced that a coding error dating to 2002 had led to the release of roughly 3,000 state prison inmates over a 13 year period. The problem was first discovered by a victim's family in 2012, but remained unfixed until 2015. Two of those inmates who were released early were later implicated in the deaths of two citizens. In her call with reporters on Tuesday, Kohler rejected any comparison to the DOC mistake.

"We did not ignore it, it was serious and we recognized that and made a fix immediately," said Kohler. "So I don't think it's fair to compare it to the Department of Corrections issue at all."

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."