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Tuesday primary to test state’s new VoteWA system

(MyNorthwest photo)

State lawmakers approved major changes to Washington voting system over the past two sessions that all took effect this year. Tuesday’s primary is the first election to take place with all of these changes, in the form of the new VoteWA system.

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One big change, Washington now has same day voter registration, which provides a new option for people who haven’t registered or need to change their voter information on Election Day.

“You have to go into the election office in your county to register to vote, or update your address and you can be issued a ballot right then and there. You can do that all the way up until 8 o’clock election night,” explained Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

The primary is the first election since same day voter registration became available. It’s also the first election under the new statewide VoteWa voter management system, which went live in the spring.

It’s a statewide voter registration database that allows all 39 county election offices to look at voter information in near real time.

“So, if a voter on Election Day starts in King County and drives down to Tacoma because they’ve moved and they want to update their address they can do that, and we have the ability now to be able to cancel the first ballot that has been issued to a voter and reissue that current ballot with their new address,” Wyman said.

“You know, really have the security on the back-end to make sure that no more than one ballot gets counted per voter, but also give that real good accessibility that voters want to have on Election Day,” she added.

Wyman says VoteWa is meant to make elections more secure and protect against things like voter fraud, duplicate voters, and Russian hackers, a big concern since Washington was one 19 states that detected Russians trying to get into its voter registration system in 2016.

Vote tabulation systems are at the county offices and not connected to the internet, so they are much more secure. Wyman says it’s the voter registration systems that hackers are trying to get to, and Washington is now one of several states leading on security for that with its new system.

There are also new controls on who accesses the system, such as those at county elections offices.

“They’re using a password and a code that is issued to them each time that they go into the system, but they also have to do it from a computer that’s been pre-approved or white-listed. So this is a level of security that we did not have in 2016,” Wyman said.

Equally important: There’s now a plan if something does happen.

“If the worse happens, we maybe get malware and a hacker holds our information hostage and has ransomware, we now have plans in place for what we do to not only detect and prevent that, but if it happens how to respond and recover from it,” Wyman explained.

“Those continuity of operations plans are happening not only at the state, but in all 39 counties as well. So, I think that where we are in 2019 is a very different place than in 2016 and that’s why people should have confidence,” she added.

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Several issues with the VoteWa system came to light during testing in the spring, including missing apartment numbers on voter addresses, formatting issues with overseas and military ballots, as well as complaints about the system being too slow. Just last week, King County Elections officials told The Seattle Times they’d heard from 73 people who had received two ballots because of slightly different spellings of their names.

Wyman says most of those issues have been resolved.

“Like any new technology, we’re working through some of the performance of the system that doesn’t go quite as well as we’d like it to. But we’re working with the 39 counties to optimize the system and make sure that it’s going to be very responsive for counties to be able to process ballots close to what they could with their earlier systems,” Wyman said.

While some counties have still expressed slight concerns, most are confident in the VoteWa system, which will face its first real test in the primary.

“You can’t really understand what the system is going to do until you turn it on and you actually have hundreds of people using it every day,” Wyman said.

“So, we’re using it for the primary live time, working through some optimization till, fine tuning, but really making the system better every day and it’s helping the counties get more comfortable with their processes and their policies and procedures. It’s a really good thing putting us in a great position for 2020,” Wyman explained.

If there are any issues with the new system, the idea is to identify them now in the primary, which is expected to have a roughly 30 percent turnout. That provides to time to fix any issues before the 2020 election, which is expected to see much higher turnout — 80 percent — with major races such as president, governor and other high profile contests on the ballot.

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