Postcard sent by SOS to unregistered voters in King County.
  • Postcard sent by Secretary of State to presumed unregistered voters in King County. Bilingual postcards were mailed in counties with large Spanish speaking populations.

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The Washington Secretary of State's office mailed out 1.1 million postcards to eligible voters this week notifying them that they "don't appear to be registered" to vote, generating confusion and suspicion from thousands of recipients who are in fact registered.

State co-director of elections Shane Hamlin confirms that his office has received about 1,100 phone calls over the past week from concerned registered voters who erroneously received the postcard, a number that suggests that thousands more registered voters must also have received the card. But Hamlin defends the mailing as an effort to promote voter registration education: "It's intended to be an outreach," explains Hamlin, "not an attempt to scare people way."

Hamlin says that once they explain to callers that they are in fact registered, their confusion and suspicion is allayed. Meanwhile, hundreds of unregistered recipients have called to request voter registration forms, while others have been directed to the state voter registration website. Which was, of course, the sole purpose of sending out these postcards in the first place.

But the office's good intentions don't satisfy Kathleen Drew, the Democratic nominee for Secretary of State. "It is clear that this is something that should not be happening 46 days before an election day," Drew wrote in a statement released today. "It is confusing to voters and I urge the Secretary of State's office to do whatever they can do to correct this error without any further delay."

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The error occurred when the Secretary of State's office cross-referenced the drivers license database with the voter registration database, matching on first name, last name, and birth date. Subject to some further eligibility screenings, postcards were mailed to people found in the former but not in the latter.

An erroneous birth date (mostly due to "fat-fingered" data entry, says Hamlin) or a variation in your name could trigger a mismatch. Hamlin says he hopes that more sophisticated matching algorithms will eliminate most of these errors in the future. He also says that the office will consider modifying the wording on future postcards to clarify that it does not necessarily mean that you are not registered.

But in the meanwhile, Hamlin is counting on further outreach—mostly through media reports like this—to ease any concerns generated by this well-intentioned outreach.

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