Election systems are seldom among the sexiest or most pressing line items in a state budget, least of all in 2017 when public schools, employee unions, mental health advocates and other interest groups are scrapping for every last unspent dollar in Olympia.
County auditors don’t make the most fearsome lobbyists. And building a better election-management mousetrap doesn’t score big brownie points back home for most politicians.
But investing in free, fair and efficiently run elections has repercussions well beyond the first Tuesday of November. The importance is driven home with every lingering claim of Russian hacking or rigged elections. We’re reminded of it as President Donald Trump continues to spout his sore-winner malarkey, alleging millions of fraudulent votes were cast last fall.
Elections must constantly evolve in light of technological innovation, the breakneck pace and demands of a digital society, cost pressures on government officials and expectations of integrity. Our election system must meet the highest standards, whether voters are choosing a president in November or marking a ballot for an Orting school bond in February.
Evolution has led Pierce County this year to switch to digital ballot scanners and ditch the connect-the-arrow clunkiness.
Evolution is also why the 2017 Legislature would be wise to provide $6 million for an election modernization project pitched by Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
This is not about fixing weak spots in the ramparts of Washington’s voting management system. Wyman has vouched for the security of the state’s elections, both paper and electronic, and no signs of compromised results emerged in November.
The purpose of the project is to save time, money and eliminate redundant work by integrating the front-end voter registration system with the back-end management system that ensures you receive the right ballot and that it’s correctly reported on election night.
Today, all 39 counties have their own registration systems feeding into a state database — a hodgepodge held together by software patches, built more than a decade ago by Microsoft contractors now long gone.
Data is unsynchronized and information can’t be exchanged in real time. That means a voter who moves between two counties shortly before an election might be issued two ballots, and both counties would have to untangle it later.
All 39 county auditors give the plan a thumbs up, including Pierce’s election guru, Julie Anderson. She notes that progressive election reform ideas, including Election Day voter registration and pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds, can’t be safely supported with the old patchwork but could fly a lot farther with an integrated system.
Cost-conscious legislators should like that they’re not being asked to pick up the whole tab. Wyman already has $3.6 million of the $9.5 million total cost in hand from federal grants.
Lean-government types should approve that the number of outside vendors would shrink from three to one. Local taxpayers should appreciate that counties would have to cover no costs up front, though there would be some ongoing outlays to operate the system.
And anyone with cybersecurity concerns should be pleased that actual tabulation of ballots would remain decentralized at the county level.
Why not keep applying duct tape to the old system for a few more years? Because election managers need time to install, test and break in the new model before the 2020 presidential vote.
Lawmakers drafting their 2017-18 budgets should make sure this project is included. Six million dollars is a small price to pay for an election system that meets the needs of all counties, from Pierce to Pend Oreille.