EVERETT — With less than a week until the primary, Washington election officials are assuring voters that a new statewide computer system will keep their ballots safe from interference — both foreign and domestic.
The new $9.5 million system, VoteWa, unified the state’s 39 county voting systems into one database, an update that will both streamline voter registration and protect the state from cyberattacks, officials say.
VoteWa is coming online at a time of ongoing concerns about possible meddling in American elections by enemies overseas.
“As a state, we cannot combat the national cyber threat to our election system with aging technology,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman warned in an open letter to state lawmakers in mid-July expressing support for the new system.
But leaders of some counties have voiced frustration with the new program, including that VoteWa is slower than their previous systems and that voters are getting ballots late, or in some cases never at all.
Earlier this month, King County elections director Julie Wise told state lawmakers it took her office 90 minutes to scan 300 ballots, a much slower pace than usual.
In Snohomish County, election manager Garth Fell doesn’t share those concerns. While VoteWa has no impact on the machines that count ballots, getting them processed for tabulation might take longer.
Fell said while the new system is a little slower, it’s “nothing that’s going to impact our ability to count ballots and certify an election.”
As far as missing ballots, Fell estimated his office has received “probably several hundred” calls from voters and that replacement ballots were sent out on time.
“We always get calls,” he said. “I think we’ve been successful at this point in ensuring all voters have received ballots.”
Since ballots went out earlier this month, more than 118,000 people statewide updated their registration, state election director Lori Augino said in a news release last week. That could lead to them receiving two ballots. But, VoteWa automatically nullifies the old ballot.
In addition, VoteWa uses what’s called an Albert sensor, a form of cybersecurity that tracks malicious activity nationwide. So, if a potential attack in Ohio is identified, other states are made aware.
For Washington, only the individual Internet Protocol addresses of county election computers are permitted to connect to VoteWa’s system. After that, a separate computer key is needed to gain further access.
Additionally, VoteWa includes a statewide geographic information system that takes voter addresses and visualizes them on a map so election officials ensure people are voting on the right races. The feature, already common in larger counties, will still be new to many across the state.
With the new tool, an election official in Everett will be able to check in real time if someone is already signed up somewhere else. Additionally, election-day registration is available in Washington for the first time.
The online and mail-in period to register to vote ended on Monday. Those wanting to sign up may do so at the county’s office in downtown Everett, which is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Tuesday, it’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Additionally, voters will be able to register and vote at the Lynnwood Sno-Isle Library from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
“People can sometimes procrastinate until the last day and say, ‘Everyone’s’s talking about the election. I want to participate,’” Assistant Secretary of State Mark Neary said on Tuesday. “I would imagine, based off some conversations I’ve had with other states, we’re going to see quite a few people come in on election day to register.”
The county initially estimated primary voter turnout to be between 25-28 percent. Fell said they’re on pace for about 23 percent. Unlike Neary, Fell isn’t expecting an influx of same-day registration voters. But conversation surrounding the new system might prompt voters who already are registered to cast a vote they otherwise might not have, he said.
“We’re optimistic we’ll get there,” he said of the turnout projection.
In 2017’s primary election, which included a mayoral race in Everett and several county council seats, less than 24 percent of registered voters turned in a ballot.