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Spin Control: County elections offices struggling with new VoteWA system

Washington lawmakers, in their ineffable wisdom, decided that starting this year state residents could register to vote right up until Election Day.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, whose office runs local elections, has a message to folks who plan to vote in the Aug. 6 primary and aren’t yet registered or have moved since they last voted:

“Please, please don’t wait until those last few days to register.”

Yes, she said “please” twice, and with an emphasis that’s hard to show in print. Suffice to say, she really means it.

That’s because county elections offices all over the state are struggling with the new registration system, VoteWA, which is replacing the old MyVote system that was outdated and vulnerable to security threats.

(While a system shouldn’t be judged solely by it’s name, one would be punditry malpractice not to point out that VoteWA is a dangerously close to SayWA, the state’s much mocked slogan that was around for about a nanosecond in 2006 before the half-million campaign it was laughed into ignominious oblivion.)

In a state like Washington, which has a primary and general election for something every year, plus multiple days possible for special elections, there may be no good time to change out a registration system, only times that are less bad. Secretary of State Kim Wyman made the call to make the switch before this off-year primary, arguing that’s less bad than before this year’s general, with all deciding municipal races, or the new presidential primary next March, the state primary that August or the big Kahuna presidential election in November 2020.

Dalton said she favored keeping the old system running in parallel while the new system came online, but there were security problems with that.

Other county elections officials criticized the system as “not ready for prime time” this week during a legislative work session. But the old system has gone to the tech equivalent of the bone yard, and counties are working hard to get the new one in place.

“We can’t just say ‘We’ll put off the election for a few weeks,’ ” Dalton said.

On the plus side, “intake,” the data entry for a new voter, is faster and better, she said, and all addresses are checked with GIS tracking to pinpoint their exact location for district boundaries.

On the minus side, the system has been slow, and went down for two days a couple weeks ago, which meant the work that couldn’t be done then had to be rescheduled for later.

Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin regards VoteWA as a “new and interesting” process, although it is a total change for the people who have dealt with elections registrations in the past.

“In the long run, this’ll be great for the state,” he said.

In the short run, however, there’s a primary election to conduct. Ballots go out July 19, and residents can register or update their address information online until July 29.

July 30 is the start of an eight-day period where online registration is closed. But new voters or those who need to transfer their address can do so in person, even up to the time the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. In Spokane, that will be available at the Elections Office on West Gardner, or at CenterPlace in the Spokane Valley.

“Hopefully, there won’t be a huge rush,” said McLaughlin, but if there is, they’ll staff up accordingly. Because it’s a local election, he suspects most walk-ins will be registered voters who moved since the last election and had their ballots forwarded from the old address to the new one.

But if you know you fall into that category, Dalton would reiterate that you can transfer your registration right now, online. You’ll save yourself a trip, and the elections staff the extra work of changing registrations in the middle of the election.