Glitch Left Thousands Off Washington's Voter Registration Rolls
By Joseph O'Sullivan
For years, a glitch in a Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) system caused thousands of people to be left off the state's voter rolls.
The software issue prevented thousands of registrations in the motor-voter program from being transmitted to the Secretary of State's Office, officials for the two agencies said Tuesday.
Now, election officials are rushing to get ballots to nearly 7,000 people who didn't already register through other means before the Feb. 13 special election for local ballot issues across the state.
Those 7,000 were identified from about 25,000 people who since 2011 tried to register to vote through DOL's motor-voter system but didn't have their names sent on to the voter rolls. Most of those 25,000 were registered to vote in some other way.
The problem mainly involved people who changed their names on their driver's licenses and got a new driver's license number. Most of those impacted were women, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The software problem may have affected some voter registrations as far back as 2006, but officials say they haven't analyzed data that old.
In a news conference Tuesday, DOL Director Pat Kohler attributed the problem to a decades-old driver-database system that is scheduled to be replaced this year.
Because of the mistake, 1,574 King County voters have been left off the voter rolls, with an additional 768 left off in Snohomish County.
County election officials Tuesday were processing those registrations with the aim of mailing ballots Wednesday morning, according to Kendall Hodson, chief of staff for King County Elections.
Voters can also go online and download their ballots to print out, she said.
Hodson said it's too soon to know all the details, but "certainly any time that we aren't mailing ballots to voters, that's alarming to us."
On Dec. 4, a Skamania County elections worker who made a driver's license change notified state election officials of a possible problem, said Lori Augino, elections director for the Secretary of State's Office.
Augino said her office contacted DOL and was first told the issue was a one-time error.
But Secretary of State officials suspected there was a wider problem, Augino said, "pushing and prodding" DOL staff almost daily to figure out what happened.
At one point in late December, Augino said, two DOL staff members gave different answers in response to an election official's question about the problem.
"And those different answers led my staff to believe that there was something bigger going on," she said.
DOL officials didn't identify the glitch as a systemwide problem until Jan. 26, a situation Augino called "frustrating."
The Secretary of State's Office intends to undertake an extensive review of DOL's motor-voter data to check for other issues, she said.
The motor-voter program allows people to register to vote when completing any transaction at a DOL office.
DOL spokeswoman Krista Carlson said the agency responded quickly once management was alerted to the issue. The agency released a software fix Jan. 30.
"We will be investigating what occurred here," Carlson said.
In an email, Tara Lee, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the office is "concerned about any potential disenfranchisement of voters."
But, "It's unknown at this point what the impact to previous elections has been, and DOL and SOS are doing everything possible to make sure voters are able to participate in next week's election," Lee wrote.
The Feb. 13 elections around the state include school-district tax levies and other local tax questions.
Many of the 7,000 voters now being registered will likely have ballot issues in their county to vote on, Augino said.
Tuesday's announcement by DOL comes a month after it was revealed that the agency was giving federal immigration-enforcement agents personal information on state some residents.
Federal agents could use that information to arrest and deport people who entered the country without proper documentation.
DOL has since said it won't release personal information to federal officials without a court order, unless required by law.
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