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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."

‘Not ready for prime time.’ WA election officials sound alarm over new voter registration system

Washington Secretary of State's Office

County election officials in Washington are warning that a new statewide voter registration database system is not ready for the state's August 6 primary and could result in some voters getting incorrect ballots or no ballot at all.

The concerns reached a crescendo on Tuesday at a work session of the Washington Senate's State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee.

A panel of county auditors and election chiefs told members of the committee that the new VoteWA system is "not ready for prime time" and that they are proceeding with the primary election "on a hope and a prayer."

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, acknowledged that she decided to "go live" with phase one of the system over the objections of some county auditors, but defended that decision as necessary because of the age and security vulnerabilities of the old system. 

"If you want to know why I made the decision that I made, it was I was so worried and freaked out by my security team that said we cannot keep operating this system," Wyman told the committee members.

In a later interview, Wyman said her other reason for pressing ahead with the launch of VoteWA for the August primary is that she didn't want the first test of the new system to be during the 2019 general election or during next year's presidential primary. 

"There was not a good time," Wyman said.

VoteWA is a $9.5 million project designed to modernize and centralize Washington's voter registration and elections management system with the goal of increasing security and protection from cyberattacks, as well as allowing for real-time tracking of ballots and same-day voter registration. Previously, Washington counties operated 39 separate election systems while the state had its own systems. The second and final phase of the project is scheduled for completion in December in advance of the 2020 election. 

"I'm proud to tell you that Washington election officials are on the leading edge of modernizing and securing our state's election system," Wyman testified on Tuesday. 

In 2016, Washington was one of 21 states that were targeted by Russian hackers in the months before the election. The hacking attempts on Washington's voter database were unsuccessful, but in a 2017 report researchers at Harvard warned that state voter rolls were vulnerable during the 2016 election. 

But the process of replacing Washington's legacy voter registration system with VoteWA has faced hurdles, beginning when only one bidder responded to the first request for proposal (RFP). That prompted a second RFP which garnered five bidders. In July 2018, the state signed a contract with South Dakota-based BPro to build the new system.

VoteWA was scheduled to go live in April, but Wyman said that was delayed six weeks at the urging of King County, the state's most populous county, because the candidate filing deadline was approaching. In May, a project oversight committee made up of representatives from the Secretary of State's Office and county election offices split 7 to 5 over whether to move ahead with implementation. The five "no" votes were all county officials. Lacking unanimous agreement on how to proceed, Wyman made the decision to proceed.

"I didn't see any reason not to go forward, because the risk of not going forward really was great, particularly in the context of cybersecurity," Wyman told the committee. 

Wyman and her assistant secretary, Mark Neary, said there was urgency to move to VoteWA because the state's old voter registration system was built in 2008 using outdated software that is no longer supported by Microsoft. 

Wyman acknowledged VoteWA had a rocky launch which she described as "the most painful two weeks certainly of my life," but said the "bugs and performance issues" that have cropped up are typical of IT project rollouts and are generally being addressed quickly.

Wyman noted that a team of approximately 80 people from the vendor, the Secretary of State's Office, the Office of Chief Information Officer and county election offices have been working on the project.

But at the work session, some of the county-level officials pushed back on the Secretary of State's narrative.

"To be really honest, it's not going well," said Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall. "I think we went live way too soon." 

Hall said that while she's confident every valid vote will count in the primary election, she's not confident she'll be able to reconcile the election after the fact so that she can show the number of ballots received, minus the ballots rejected, equals the ballots that were counted. She's also concerned that voters who participate in the August primary won't be properly credited for having voted.

"We are beta testing a live election, which is not what you usually do," Hall said in an interview. "The primary is essentially our mock election.

King County Elections Director Julie Wise had even stronger words for the committee. She called the launch of VoteWA "irresponsible" and said her election workers have been stymied by the new system as they race to enter new and updated voter registrations in time to mail out ballots by the July 19 deadline. 

"I have a backlog of 20,000 voter registration records and the system was down for three-and-a-half, four days," Wise angrily told the lawmakers. "That's the system not even working, not even functioning. I had to send staff home. So this system is not ready for prime time."

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for King County Elections said the backlog had started out at 20,000 but is now down to 4,200. 

Wise also warned that in some cases the new system is dropping apartment numbers or assigning voters the wrong precinct, which means voters might not get a ballot or might get the wrong ballot.

Processing ballots when they are returned is another area of concern. Wise said in a test she ran it took 90 minutes to process 300 ballots. King County has 1.3 million registered voters.

"We need to go through a mock election, we need to test the system, that has never happened," Wise said. 

Paddy McGuire, the auditor in Mason County, complained that he's unable to print accurate voter registration cards using the new system. 

"We're going backwards from where we were two months ago and that's just not acceptable," McGuire said. 

Other county auditors, though, were less critical. Joe MacLean of Grays Harbor County said the system isn't perfect, but added there's no going back now. And Cowlitz County Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland said she's "about 95 percent confident" in the new system. 

According to the Secretary of State's office, all of Washington's 39 counties have access to a "test environment" where they can do an "end-to-end" test of the system before the August primary. So far, just four counties have successfully conducted that test.

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."