Government Technology

Washington Uses Web to Ease Voter Registration

January 12, 2009 By

Visit Washington state's home page and you'll easily find the voter-information section - a sterling example of how software, hardware and the Internet converge to make it easier for citizens to exercise their civic rights. Users can register online, print voter-registration forms in several languages and view personalized information like candidates' statements and online address change options. The creation of these features was spurred by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) - a federal law that changed how Americans vote.

When President George W. Bush signed HAVA on Oct. 29, 2002, he authorized the federal government to modernize voting systems for the 21st century. HAVA provided federal government funds for states to make the upgrades, and the federal government also created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to set standards for how states administer elections. The act mandated that states replace outdated voting methods and give citizens the option to vote when officials can't verify eligibility. HAVA also required states to establish a statewide voter-registration database, voter-identification procedures and administrative procedures for complaints.

According to a report released by the Election Assistance Commission in July 2008, the federal government distributed nearly $650 million between April 2003 and August 2003 under Title I, Sections 101 and 102 of HAVA. Section 101 mandated that states receive funds to finance voter education programs and state election personnel training activities; Section 102 required the federal government to finance states' replacement of punch card or lever voting machines. The federal government also distributed more than $2.3 billion between June 2004 and December 2005; each state had to contribute at least 5 percent matching funds of this allocation, which mandated that the federal government distribute money annually toward state election overhaul efforts.


Road to Compliance

Each state devised a plan for how it would use the funds. Washington released its plan in 2003, soon after the president authorized HAVA. Although the act had many requirements, those of Title III - which required states to adopt uniform election technology and nondiscriminatory administration standards - were the minimum requirements states could fulfill to comply with HAVA.

Washington received almost $6.8 million from the federal government as required by Section 102. HAVA stated that these particular funds were also for establishing uniform voting standards statewide. The voter-registration database (VRDB) and accompanying county election-management systems were Washington's answer to these mandates.

Washington state officials decided they could meet these requirements by creating a comprehensive VRDB designed to interact with county election-management systems and the equipment they used to record votes at the county level. The state partnered with Microsoft, which supplied tools - including Microsoft .NET, BizTalk and SQL Server - to build the VRDB in-house. It was operating by Jan. 1, 2006, the deadline to meet HAVA requirements.

"As we met with various election software vendors, we came to the realization there's really no such thing as out of the box because every software solution needs to be customized to meet each state's laws, regulations and court mandates," said Steve Excell, the assistant secretary of state. Washington needed a customizable solution, a standard, rigid solution wouldn't cut it.

"Their products were not extensible, and we were looking at giving voters access to information like their voting history, polling places, ballot drop boxes and customized information that you could get on the Internet." In IT circles, an extensible system is one that's flexible and can adapt to specialized needs.

Washington also wanted greater control over how the state's VRDB would communicate with all 39 counties. When the database was created, all county voter registration lists were consolidated into the one the VRDB now contains. The reasoning was that one list would improve election accuracy and reduce voter fraud. It turned out they were right. As of Feb. 1, 2006, 3,387 duplicate registrations and 5,244 registrations of deceased citizens were investigated and canceled because of the system. The VRDB checks its data

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