OLYMPIA – Despite warnings from elections officials in King and other counties about problems with a new voter-registration system, Washington state intends to forge ahead and use it for the Aug. 6 primary.

A steering committee of state and county election officials — which included Secretary of State Kim Wyman — made the decision.

Wyman’s office, along with counties and the company contracted to develop the system are now scrambling to iron out details, such as making sure mailing addresses will be correct, for an election period that has already begun.

Officials in two of Washington’s biggest counties — King and Spokane — are cobbling together temporary “workarounds” to make sure they can provide basic election services for the system, which handles information for all the state’s voters.

Struggles transitioning from the old system to the new $9.5 million project, called VoteWA, also shut down the state’s online voter-registration system for roughly a month, about two weeks longer than planned, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

When King County officials this spring flipped the switch to test VoteWA, they encountered a slew of problems:

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  • Apartment numbers for voter addresses didn’t appear, calling into question whether a quarter of King County’s nearly 1.3 million registered voters could get a ballot in the mail, according to county Elections Director Julie Wise.
  •  VoteWA couldn’t translate materials into all five languages used by King County elections officials.
  • Problems arose with barcodes that are put on the ballots to help county elections workers track information as those ballots are returned.
  • The new program didn’t always properly format addresses for military and overseas voters, throwing into question whether those ballots would reach their destinations.

Elections officials in Spokane, Thurston and a handful of other counties also experienced some of those issues.

The Secretary of State’s Office has said those problems have been fixed and the system is ready to go. And county officials acknowledge that such problems are the sort of bugs that any ambitious software overhaul could reveal in a testing phase.

But elections officials say they’re also concerned because they didn’t get to test every component of the new system ahead of the primary.

“We’re using the primary election as a test environment, which is not how it’s usually done,” said Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall.

Ballots for overseas and military voters started going out in the mail last week. Because of the new system’s problems with those, workers in King and Thurston counties had to manually correct many overseas addresses before they went out, according to Wise and Hall.

Meanwhile, Spokane County has created workarounds to handle problems related to ballot barcodes and to email electronic ballots that go to some overseas voters, according to Auditor Vicky Dalton.

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Dalton said voters in her county should expect to see fewer ballots counted than usual on election night. If people must register to vote or change their address, they should do so earlier rather than later, she added.

For years, elections officials have discussed the idea of centralizing some of the work currently undertaken by each of Washington’s 39 counties.

Wise, Hall and others say they’re excited about VoteWA, which ultimately will allow counties to better work together and help the state implement the new same-day voter registration law, which takes effect with this primary.

They, along with Dalton and other county elections officials, say they’re confident that primary ballots won’t get lost or miscounted.

But Wise found the VoteWA problems discovered during testing so troubling that she has decided to use parts of King County’s existing system to handle the August primary.

To do that, she said, the county has created dozens of workarounds to make sure the work can be done.

“What if there’s a serious issue in the [new] system that we develop in the middle of the primary?” said Wise, adding later: “I just think we’re jumping the gun on a system that hasn’t been fully vetted, and that we could potentially see issues.”

“Not ready for prime time”

Assistant Secretary of State Mark Neary, one of the project’s leaders, said those problems have been corrected since the tests and the contractor, the South Dakota-based BPro, is moving swiftly to fix any new issues that pop up.

The project team also recently gave county auditors another presentation on VoteWA so they better understand it, he said.

Neary said he gets that some counties might be nervous, but “I’m also confident in the VoteWA system and being able to conduct our primary.”

The general consensus has been to test the new system this year, said Neary, which is an off-year election cycle with fewer races.

This year’s primary includes high-profile city council elections in Seattle and around the state, as well as a  Spokane mayoral contest.

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Among other races in 2020, Washington voters will choose among candidates for president, governor and attorney general and other statewide offices, as well as for more than 100 state lawmakers.

Official notes from the project’s weekly steering committee meetings earlier this month outlined the troubles some counties encountered when election officials tested the system.

By then, the project had already encountered some delays, including the delay by a few weeks of the testing, which had been scheduled for late April.

Notes from a June 6 meeting detail 11 different problems identified in King County, including those with the apartment numbers, language translations and overseas ballots.

It identified another nine issues that elections officials hadn’t been able to test.

In detailing some of its problems, Spokane County said the system “will be great in the future, but it is not ready for prime time now,” according to the notes.

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A representative for Adams County said officials there “had higher expectations for usability at this point,” according to the notes. Chelan County was “not confident in using VoteWA for the primary” because testing had not been done all the way through the election process.

However, auditors for Adams and Chelan counties now say they’re comfortable using VoteWA.

“I’ve seen more of it, and I’m far more confident and comfortable than I was the first of the month,” said Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore. Moore added that he still has existing election programs available if they’re needed as a fallback.

Adams County Auditor Heidi Hunt said she now feels comfortable because the contractor, BPro, has responded quickly to problems and fixed them.

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said they encountered “bumps” during the testing phase but those issues were quickly resolved and, “We’re ready for the primary.”

“If things come up, we’re ready to address them immediately, as well,” Weikel added.

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Providing a failsafe

VoteWA’s problems have drawn attention from some Democratic lawmakers, who last year pushed a package of voter-access bills through the Legislature that are also about to be implemented.

Those include Senate Bill 6021, which sets up same-day voter registration in the state.

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia and chair of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee, said Tuesday he was frustrated that he didn’t hear about any difficulties from the Secretary of State’s office.

In an email, Hunt wrote that “if SOS was short on staff or resources needed to implement VoteWA, she [Wyman] should have asked us during session. But no requests were made and no alarms sounded. So I hope all is well.”

Hunt said his committee is planning a July 9 work session in Vancouver, so any problems can be discussed then, if necessary.

Neary, the assistant secretary of state, said same-day voter registration will present an extra failsafe if voters have trouble receiving their ballots.

“If a voter is unable or doesn’t feel like they didn’t got the correct ballot or haven’t received a ballot, they’re able to come in to a county election official all the way up until Election Day,” he said.