November 4, 2010 in City

State takes blame for election website crashes

Demand exacerbated problems with voting result pages
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Washington has killer election websites when they work.

“There is no state in the country that has this sophisticated an election-night reporting system,” state Elections Director Nick Handy said.

There’s even a way to prepare an emergency ballot for voters who are traveling.

Unfortunately, election night is when the websites don’t work.

The system crashed for a couple of hours when results began pouring in from the Aug. 17 primary, and it was up and down Tuesday as record numbers of people turned to it for general election results.

Election officials in Spokane County and elsewhere around the state had difficulty uploading their results to state computers. Then the uploaded results were accessible to the public only intermittently.

“Sometimes it was very slow and sometimes it was just down,” Handy said.

As in the primary, Spokane County officials improvised. They posted a bare-bones list of results on the home page of the county’s website, omitting precinct breakdowns.

It was the last straw for Auditor Vicky Dalton.

She said a state-provided Web page “will no longer be our main page for election results.”

The problem is doubly frustrating for county auditors because the state-provided Web pages are accessed through county websites, giving the appearance that local officials are to blame.

The problems “were definitely a result of our system, not Spokane’s,” said Handy, who works for Secretary of State Sam Reed.

“This is a huge disappointment to us, not to be able to serve the voters and the counties the way we should,” Handy said. “We’re really putting a lot of resources into trying to stabilize it.”

The state election office spent about $130,000 in federal money to overhaul the system after the primary. Despite appearances, that was a success, Handy said.

Results for statewide races and ballot measures – totaled from county-supplied data – were quickly and dependably available on the secretary of state’s website. And the site received about twice as many requests for information as during the 2008 presidential election.

That was accomplished by separating and beefing up the “back end” portion of the system that receives and compiles county results, according to Shane Hamlin, the assistant state elections director.

Powerful new servers running the latest software now prepare databases that are copied onto “middle-tier” servers. Those, in turn, feed the “front-end” servers that handle requests for local election results.

Only the secretary of state’s website draws information directly from the new back-end servers.

Introduction of a go-between middle-tier means county election offices shouldn’t have had difficulty uploading results to the new back-end system. Why some did is a mystery, Hamlin said.

A team of experts will analyze Tuesday’s problems, but Hamlin said it appears the middle-tier and front-end systems also need to be upgraded.

Extraordinarily high demand for election information contributed to the problem.

State pages on county websites were overwhelmed by perhaps five times as many requests for local results as they received during the primary, Hamlin said.

He said the state-provided pages were “up and down, up and down” until demand diminished about 9:30 p.m.

“It needs to work all the time, but it really needs to work for two hours on election night,” Hamlin said. “We’ve got to address that.”


There are four comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email