Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How 11,000 ballots went missing; statewide ballot problems emerge

An embarrassing computer glitch -- but one that anyone can relate to -- in King County explains why 11,000 voters didn’t receive their ballots until just over a week before Election Day. And, just as that problem was resolved, Washington's Secretary of State discovered that 21,000 voters around the state may not have received ballots.

King County Elections director Sherril Huff says she learned on October 26th that something was wrong. Her staff at the agency's call center noticed they were getting an unusual number of calls about missing ballots from a cluster of neighborhoods east of Lake Washington.

Elections' computer technician Dale Hartman told a County Council hearing that the problem started back in September, when an election supervisor tried to send the list of voters to the company that prints the ballots:

"She started the process at 4:05 p.m., and sometime during that process, the computer hung. She logged out or rebooted the application, started the process again, completed it. [She] did not think there was any problem because we never had an issue like this happen before to us."

The ballots were printed, and nobody noticed that a chunk of the database was missing – partly because the missing cluster only accounts for about one percent of the 1.1 million county ballots.

Elections director Huff – who is up for re-election herself – says she’s already adding new safeguards for the future. The agency will reconcile the number of voters with the number of printed ballots.

Within three days of discovering the problem, ballots were mailed to all 11,000 voters. Most voters received their ballots on October 31st.

Motor-voter lacks automatic transmission

And, just as that glitch was raising questions in King County, the Washington Secretary of State discovered its own computer problem. Spokesman Dave Ammons sent this message to media:

We have become aware that about 21,000 voters/potential voters who used the Department of Licensing website may not have received ballots at their updated address or may not have been registered online. Anyone who has not received a ballot and believes himself or herself to be properly registered should go to the county elections office or voting center and will be allowed to vote a provisional ballot before close of business on Tuesday.

A memo from state elections director Katie Blinn attributes the problem to the Department of Licensing, because Licensing recently updated its website to allow people to check a box for updating their voter registration. This is allowed under Washington's "motor-voter" law.

However, Blinn says the data was never transferred to the Secretary of State, which then sends voter info to local elections offices. Approximately 14,800 people updated their addresses this way, and another 5,900 tried to update their addresses, but needed to first register locally.

The problem was discovered late on Friday -- too late to mail ballots. Those voters are supposed to contact their local county elections office and cast a "provisional ballot."

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.