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Washington's Missing 21,000 Ballots: Failure to Communicate

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[Image courtesy of TransGriot]

Last week, just before Election Day, the Washington Secretary of State revealed that it had identified as many as 21,000 voters who had not been sent ballots because their updated information was not included in the voter list and thus never made its way to county election officials responsible for mailing ballots.

The problem apparently stems from a miscommunication between the Secretary's office and the state Department of Licensing (DOL), which handles motor vehicle information. Under the federal "motor voter" law, citizens are supposed to be able to register to vote or update their information at a variety of state agencies, including DOL. For some reason, data from 21,000 voters who did so didn't make it from DOL to the voter rolls.

Whose fault this is has become a point of contention. According to the Associated Press:

The secretary of state's office said it has not been receiving online voter registration updates from the Department of Licensing and just learned of the problem Friday. But licensing officials said they have been forwarding all the appropriate information since the online update option was implemented in August.

"We believe it's really important to get it right, and we believe we did," said Gigi Zenk, a spokeswoman for the licensing department.

Katie Blinn, the co-director of elections in the state, said licensing was switching to a different method for sharing the information but the secretary of state's office had indicated it wasn't ready to start using that method until after the election. She said the office didn't even know that this was an option on the licensing website.

"Obviously, there was a miscommunication," Blinn said.

Washington's experience is a cautionary tale for any state that is in the process of upgrading its registration process to better serve its voters.

Up to a point, this story should have been good news for voters: two state agencies responsible for collecting and managing information about citizens were planning to cooperate to allow citizens to engage in one-stop data shopping to update their addresses for licensing and voting.

Obviously, it was successful in one sense; 21,000 people found the right part of the DOL website and made the effort to update their information for voting purposes.

Unfortunately, because of a failure to communicate - between DOL and the Secretary AND between state government and citizens/voters - this project became an unfortunate overpromise to voters on which the state ultimately underdelivered.

As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter who is at fault here - the problem just needs to be fixed, so as not to discourage citizens from taking advantage of modernized registration procedures that will benefit election officials and voters alike in the long run.

Washington State now knows that cooperation between DOL and the Secretary didn't work last time. Here's hoping they decide to share the blame and find a way to make it work next time, when far more than 21,000 voters are likely to need the service this cooperation offers.

In other words, the best way to fix a failure to communicate is to - you guessed it - communicate.

3 Comments


  • Doug,

    Does the Wash DOL now have the authority to register people to vote or does that still remain with the county auditors and sec of state?

    Dick Smolka

  • Dick: I don't think so; my understanding is that this is just the latest method for keeping up with NVRA. I know the Washington folks read the blog so they'll correct me if I'm wrong.

  • Doug and Dick:

    Recently, the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) began providing drivers the option to update their driver’s license address online, on the DOL website. As part of this feature, DOL added the option of sending the updated address information to our office for voter registration purposes. This is a great way to use technology to further the goals of motor voter, or as Doug put it - offer the public one-stop shopping. The concept was great, but implementation ran into two significant snags:

    1) Data:

    There was a miscommunication between the two agencies that this option was being offered on the DOL website. Consequently, the Secretary of State’s Office was not aware that this data was being collected, or that it was available to be retrieved on a new information exchange service that DOL was beginning to use to provide data to outside stakeholders.

    2) Question on DOL website:

    The question DOL posed on the webpage was simply: "Would you like us to notify the Secretary of State of your new address so you can vote in future elections?"

    This question is followed by a yes and no button, and the yes button is preselected by default. After quick review of the data, we found that the wording of the question resulted in a mix of address updates from people already registered to vote and people who were not registered to vote.

    We are working closely with DOL to modify the wording of their website change of address service to include the questions the agency is required to ask when a driver indicates he or she would like to register to vote or update his or her registration. This change will ensure that all address updates we receive from the new online DOL service can be properly processed and the drivers can get registered.

    To answer Dick’s question, while the NVRA requires the DOL to offer voter registration services only when issuing new licenses or at license renewal, offering these services when changing addresses is a step above and beyond what is required in the law. We appreciate DOL going the extra mile to help keep voter registration records up to date. Some could argue that updating driver’s license information is a form of renewal.

    Numbers reported in the media:

    21,000 ballots did not going missing. 21,000 people were not left out of the General Election. It is greatly disappointing that any voter was impacted by this. Yet, while the real number of effected voters is unknown at this time, it will certainly be much lower than 21,000.

    Approximately 15,000 transactions were address updates for registered voters. County elections offices had already received some of these address changes due to voters contacting the elections office directly, or through receipt of address update information from the Post Office at prior elections, such as the August Primary. Washington votes entirely by mail, so many ballots are forwarded to a person’s new address if forwarding information is available to the Post Office. Washington State law allows a voter to vote a ballot for an old address until the voter registration file is updated.

    Approximately 6,000 transactions were for people who were not already registered. The information provided by the DOL address update system is not sufficient to complete a new voter registration. We advised county elections departments to treat these as incomplete registrations, so a person could vote a provisional ballot and finalize the registration at the same time, and that provisional ballot would be counted.

    Preliminary analysis is promising:

    Early analysis by Pierce County (Tacoma) confirms our belief that the actual number of effected voters is much smaller than reported by the media. Of the 21,000 records involved in this case, 2,309 are in Pierce County. The County Auditor's office analyzed all 2,309 records. Here’s what they found:

    -- 689 of these people had also contacted the county directly to update their address. These people received a ballot on time.

    -- 734 of these people were not registered to vote. These will be treated as new, incomplete registrations. These folks were eligible to vote a provisional ballot and complete a registration.

    -- 886 of these people did not have the most current address on file when ballots were mailed. Since Pierce County uses postal forwarding for ballots, we believe many of these voters received their ballot at their new address.

    Lessons learned:

    Obviously, there is much to learn from this experience. Right now, we are focused on optimizing the change of address service on DOL’s webpage and making the changes to our systems to receive these requests in a timely manner.

    It will take a couple of weeks beyond certification of the General Election to know the true scope of the problem – how many of these people voted ballots for an old address, how many provisional ballots were cast as a result of this error, how many of these provisionals were counted, etc. Having an accurate accounting of the problem and seeing this through the end is the right thing to do.

    Throughout this experience, many in our office commented that situations like this are why provisional ballots exist. Fortunately, our state embraced provisional ballots long before Congress made them a requirement in HAVA. We have decades of experience managing provisionals and our provisional ballot laws tip in favor of the voter.

    Our relationship with DOL is still strong. New registrations through DOL, or motor voter registrations, remain our bread and butter for voter registration. A collaborative relationship with DOL, built on good communication practices, is vital to a healthy voter registration system. This is especially true as we pursue additional ways to upgrade voter registration in Washington State.

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