OLYMPIA — Substantial new changes to Washington’s elections system face a key test this week, as voters around the state cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary.
Washington has adopted same-day voter registration, which allows eligible citizens to register and receive a ballot up until 8 p.m. Tuesday, the end of the election period.
And elections officials are deploying a new, statewide voter-management system that has had a rocky rollout in some counties. Known as VoteWA, it is expected to make elections more secure, reduce the risk of fraud and give many counties an upgrade in their elections capabilities.
At the root of the new system is a statewide voter database that is updated in real time. So if someone wants to register to vote in King County, for instance, elections workers should be able to immediately determine whether that person has already cast a ballot elsewhere in the state.
The system’s data is also exported to create ballots, voter-registration cards and other materials provided to voters.
The state’s actual vote-tabulation machines are separate from VoteWA and not connected to the internet, and thus not affected by any potential VoteWA issues.
The new system and same-day voter registration make their debut in a primary election that will advance the top two candidates in each race on to the Nov. 5 general election.
Lawmakers and state officials wanted to put both those changes in place to try them out ahead of the 2020 elections, which will see heavy turnout and a slew of high-profile races, including for president.
Two Metropolitan King County Council seats are on the primary ballot, as are two Snohomish County Council positions. And voters in the left-leaning 40th Legislative District in northwestern Washington are casting ballots on a special state Senate election being closely watched by Democrats.
As part of the new same-day registration, King County is trying out regional voting centers across the county, where citizens can register and receive their ballot, or get any elections questions answered. (For more information, go to: kingcounty.gov/depts/elections.)
Testing this spring of VoteWA revealed a range of problems, including missing apartment numbers on voter addresses, some incorrectly formatted military and overseas ballot addresses, and an inability to translate election materials into the five languages required by King County.
The state Secretary of State’s Office, which is overseeing the project in collaboration with county elections officials, has said those and other issues have been resolved.
Elections officials have also said that VoteWA has at times run too slowly or been taken offline for stretches of time. That has at times hampered efforts to quickly register voters or update an existing registration.
While officials in most counties now say they’re comfortable and confident in this system, a handful of others, including King County Elections Director Julie Wise, continue to voice concerns.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman has said the system is getting tested as it goes live — the best way to determine what exactly needs to be tweaked.
“I’m feeling that the VoteWA system is right where it should be and things are going the way they anticipated,” Wyman said last week.
Since July 8, the system has processed roughly 26,000 new voter registrations under the new same-day registration deadlines, she said. In addition to being able to register in person up until election day, the new law also provided a longer window for voters to sign up online or by mail.
Wise last week sent an email to Metropolitan King County Council members outlining recently discovered problems.
As of Friday, 73 people had contacted King County Elections to report that they mistakenly received two ballots, according to Wise. The issue involved two slightly different spellings of the same name, such as a surname having an apostrophe in one ballot and not in the other.
“We’ve got a system that’s not functioning properly, we are literally using this system right now in this election, and learning things still,” said Wise. She added later, “It’s not about placing blame, it’s about wanting to raise issues that we’re aware of, so the voters can help us and so that we can get help from SOS [the Secretary of State] to fix these issues.”
In her own email last week to county auditors, state lawmakers and County Council members, Wyman addressed Wise’s concerns, downplaying some issues, or explaining how they were fixed.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson on Friday said Wyman’s email was an “accurate representation” of VoteWA’s status. Her county, Washington’s second biggest, hasn’t encountered major problems and is confident in the system, she added.
“We believe that it’s going to function just fine,” said Anderson.
Across the state, county auditors and elections officials have said they’re confident that even with the system’s bumpy rollout, Washington’s elections will be conducted without major problems and the votes accurately counted.
King County and a handful of others are using workarounds to ensure they can administer the election. Other county auditors say they either haven’t encountered any problems or those issues have been fixed.
Elections officials and state lawmakers deliberately pushed for both a statewide voting system and same-day registration in the off-year 2019 elections. This year’s contests will feature lower turnout, which is less likely to tax the system.
Wise predicts about 36% of King County voters will cast ballots in this primary. Wyman said the statewide turnout might be a few points lower than that.
In 2017, only 27% of Washington’s registered voters returned primary ballots, according to the state Secretary of State’s Office. By comparison, last year’s midterm elections drew nearly 72% of the state’s registered voters.
The idea has been to work out any difficulties before 2020, when Washingtonians will turn out in droves to cast ballots for president, governor, state attorney general, legislators and many other races.
Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire said the system currently runs too slowly to handle a high-turnout election.
“Luckily this is going to be a low-turnout election,” said McGuire. “Something we never pray for, but we’re sort of praying for it now. I am not at all confident that we could run a big election today.”
What you need to know to vote
Same-day registration: This is the first Washington election to allow same-day voter registration. In most counties, people wanting to register and vote by Tuesday can do so at their county auditor or elections office.
If you have not yet voted: You have until Tuesday. Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday, Aug. 6, or dropped in an official county dropbox before 8 p.m. that day.
If you have not received your ballot in the mail, lost it, want to find a dropbox, wish to track your ballot status, find a voting center where you can cast your ballot, get help if you have a disability that makes it hard to fill out a ballot, or have other questions, contact your elections office:
- King County: 206-296-VOTE (8683) or kingcounty.gov/depts/elections. TTY: Relay 711.
- Snohomish County: 425-388-3444 or snohomishcountywa.gov/224/Election. TTY/TDD: Call Washington Relay, 1-800-833-6388.
- Kitsap County: 360-337-7129 or www.kitsapgov.com/auditor/Pages/elections.aspx