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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Spin Control: Somebody call the IT department

OLYMPIA – To err is human, Shakespeare said, but to really screw up takes a computer.

That may become the unofficial slogan of state agencies after yet another embarrassing problem with computer programs showed up last week.

This time it was the Department of Licensing program that relays a new or updated voter registration to the Secretary of State’s elections office, which some state resident opted for when getting a driver’s license. When some would-be voters were registering with a new name, such as after a recent marriage or divorce, the DOL computer wasn’t necessarily sending the registration over.

A problem was with the computer language in the department’s old system, state officials said. The DL computer uses COBOL, which the elections office apparently reads about as well as we read Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Thousands of voters weren’t registered over the years. How many voters over how many years isn’t exactly clear, but since 2011, as far back as the department was able to check, it was about 24,000. But many of those eventually got registered by some other means, so a week before Tuesday’s special election state and local officials were scrambling to get a shade under 7,000 signed up and sent ballots.

In explaining what happened, and how they are working to fix it, department officials took umbrage at any comparison between this computer screw-up and the Department of Corrections’ computer screw-up of 2015, when the state announced that thousands of inmates had been released early because a computer was miscalculating the length of their sentences.

No fair, they said. They didn’t ignore the problem like Corrections did. (To be absolutely accurate, that’s not fair, either. DOC didn’t ignore its problem so much as they consigned it to software update purgatory where it never rose to the top of the list of fixes for the information technology geeks to make.)

But “We’re not as bad as the early release screw up” is a pretty low bar, considering two of those inmates who were let out early are accused of killing someone during a time when they should have still been behind bars.

Perhaps future computer screw-ups should use the metric of the state community college software update, CTClink metric, which is several years behind schedule and about $35 million over budget. They could say whether it was cheaper, and at least no one died because of it.

You say it’s your birthday

The Senate moved Saturday to remove millions of records from the state’s Public Records Act.

First they voted 25-22 to exempt the birthdays of state employees from disclosure under the 1972 law. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the sponsor of that bill, said it would be a way to protect state employees from having a key bit of personal information, the DOB, from being put on the dark web and making them vulnerable to identity theft.

When voters passed that law, she said, “the only computers I was looking at were on ‘Star Trek.’ ” Now most people have a computer on their desk and another in their hand.

Some Republicans argued, unsuccessfully, that the bill was really a way to make it hard to identify state employees for groups that might want to contact them to talk about their rights to opt out of a union. It would also make it hard to track teachers or coaches who have been fired from one school district for improper behavior but hired by another.

That bill would cover tens of thousands of people who work for the state. But a short time later, the Senate voted to take the date and month out of the state’s voter registration base, which includes some 4 million residents.

Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, tried to take that provision out of a bill designed to allow eligible residents to be automatically registered to vote when they get an enhanced driver’s license or sign up with some other state agencies. Candidates routinely get birthdates with their voter lists and Miloscia said he’s never had anyone complain while campaigning door-to-door that he knew how old they were.

“I’ve had a lot of people complain,” Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said.

Maybe it’s all in how you present it. The proposal won’t solve Hunt’s problem, because it leaves the year in. Candidates will still be able to come within a year of everyone’s age.

The automatic voter registration bill passed 34-13.

Say what?

Words of wisdom from a House debate last week on “Ban the Box” legislation:

“Good ideas in Olympia rarely die,” Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, said. “Bad ideas in Olympia rarely die.”

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