Technique | Data up-to-date

Washington builds its own database to meet voter-registration mandate

Geography plays a part in Washington's backup plans

Voter registration data is potentially vulnerable to many dangers: hackers, election fraud, inaccuracies.

But Washington's voter data faces a risk that many states do not. The Evergreen State has had some damaging encounters with tectonic shifts. The 6.8 earthquake that struck the Olympia region Feb. 28, 2001, damaged buildings and shook books from the library shelves. Washington's state capitol building sustained serious damage. More than 400 people in the Puget Sound region were injured, and damage estimates were more than $1 billion.

To protect voter data, Washington established a mirror image of the database on the other side of the Cascade Mountains.

'Now someone would have to take out the entire state of Washington to take us down,' Excell said.

' Trudy Walsh

Getting the numbers straight: Making sure the voter registration database is accurate and up-to-date is the backbone of a better election process, said Steve Excell, Washington's assistant secretary of state.

WPN photo by Tim Matsui

One of the many problems plaguing the 2000 election process was inaccurate voter registration rolls.

Partly as a result of that debacle, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated that every state develop a single, uniform, centralized, computerized statewide voter registration list that is defined, maintained and administered at the state level. For the states, that meant a tricky bit of consolidation.

Washington, one of the first states to comply with the HAVA mandate, has 39 counties, each with its own voter registration database, said Steve Excell, Washington's assistant secretary of state. Officials had looked at 'the out-of-the-box solution, but nothing is ever quite out of the box,' he said.

Each county had its own vendor with whom officials had already established a rapport, and each of the vendors said all the counties had to convert to its products.

Washington also wanted to connect its voter registration database to its driver's license database at the Department of Licensing. 'The vendors weren't interested in that,' Excell said. 'We said, 'A database is a database.' So we developed our own solution, on [a Microsoft] SQL Server platform.'

The secretary of state put together an in-house development team and also worked with consultants from Microsoft. Several other election system vendors, including Diebold, Votec and Election Systems and Software, worked with Washington to consolidate the voter system.

The deadline set by HAVA was Jan. 1, 2006, and Washington completed its voter registration consolidation by the previous Christmas, making it one of the few states that met the HAVA deadline.

Washington's voter registration consolidation, which involved 3.2 million registered voters, cost $6 million, which comes out to about $2 per voter. By contrast, California's consolidated voter registration system, with 15.7 million registered voters, cost $60 million.

In the first year after the consolidation, election workers uncovered thousands of inaccuracies, including 39,814 duplicate voter registrations, 40,105 deceased voter registrations and 4,500 felon voter registrations.

Most of the duplicates were cases in which voters moved to another county without notifying their old county, Excell said. The new voter registration database solves this problem. Voter registrations are now transferable, like car titles.

If someone died out of state, the state probably didn't have records of it. So the deceased person would still be on the voter registration database, often for a long time. For example, a Clark County voter who died in a Portland, Ore., hospital would not show up on the state Department of Health's vital-records database but would show up on the Social Security Administration's Master Death Index. Washington checks the voter registration database against the SSA index every month.

Under Washington law, convicted felons are not allowed to vote. Washington election officials now check the database four times a year against 'everyone who lays their head on a state prison pillow,' Excell said. Washington also gives felons notice that the state is taking them off the voter rolls and notifies them when they no longer have felon status and are eligible to vote again.

Even the best voter registration systems present some hurdles, Excell said. One is scalability. 'You get a presidential election, and it's like a room full of people all trying to get through the door at one time.'

At first glance, a voter registration list might seem a little bit like direct mail, Excell said. There's the same process of lining up names and mailing addresses.

But the similarities end there.

'In direct mail, if you drop people off the list, they don't get their junk mail,' Excell said. 'But if you make a mistake in the election business, you're disenfranchising voters and violating their constitutional rights.'

Washington put a lot of thought into managing nicknames. 'We bought the rights to one of those books of baby names,' Excell said. 'So we can check William against Bill or Billy. That's one tool that's been very useful.'

Washington doesn't allow the computer to simply delete a voter. 'An election official has to pull up records and look at two signatures,' Excell said. A voter could have a signature as Catherine Smith or Cathy Smith. It would take a live human being studying the signatures to verify that they were the same person. And it's not unusual for there to be several Cathy Smiths born on the same day in the same city. Many registrations that seem like duplicates turn out not to be duplicates.

A direct-mail company would trust the computer to understand that. 'In the voting business, we have to get it right,' Excell said. 'We need a unique record for each person, and that does take some human eyeballs interacting, not just computer processing.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.


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