Until Wednesday, the creators of the popular interactive website votewashington.info were quietly running the site, happy to be anonymous. When the two self-described “computer nerds” from Whatcom County realized they were being investigated by federal cybersecurity officials for being “suspicious,” they were stunned.
“They found us fast,” said Lester Meeks, who created the site two years ago with his friend Jake Hartsoch. “We’re just a couple of guys who have day jobs and come home at five or six at night to try and keep up with the rest of this,” Meeks said.
“We explained that we’re two data nerds building something and we didn’t really think much beyond that,” Hartsoch said. “Just last week, (web) traffic kind of exploded and we really weren’t anticipating that. It’s just the two of us Washington citizens that built this, purely to try to get the vote out. We want every vote to count, and we want more people to vote.”
Meeks and Hartsoch created the site two years ago as an nonpartisan project to give voters access to broader information about vote processing than one would find on the state’s official election website vote.wa.gov. The developers say the goal of the site is “crowdsourcing” data to help voters see whose ballot is being counted, and whose is being pulled and contested for signature verification, or other various issues.
What the pair said the site harnesses are vast amounts of data the state has about whose votes are being challenged and why they’re being challenged. It shows thousands of voters by name and address alphabetically—and by area, and details that each ballot needs to be verified by the voter.
State political parties and lobbyists have been using and processing the available state voter data for years, and the creators of the site figured average citizens should have access to it, too.
“We’re hearing from people who got a notice from their brother, saying, ‘Hey,I saw your ballot is being challenged,’ and they would have had no idea. Not everyone knows to look at the site. So, this puts a more powerful front end on data that’s already public.”
The state’s official website, votewa.gov, provides to-the-minute voter-ballot processing information by entering one name at a time.
“The state’s site is really targeted at easily understanding your own vote and your own information, when you enter your name,” Meeks said. “It is not targeted at helping a voter understand their wider community or their precinct, and that’s really why we built the site. At the end of the day, it’s supposed to help people understand the people around them.”
But since no one outside of the creators knew who was behind the votewashington.info site, it raised questions of being a potential source of misinformation and foreign interference, and it aroused suspicions from Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office. Wyman asked the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Center for Internet Security to investigate the site.
The creators of the site said they had an hour-long phone conversation with investigators and the Secretary of State’s office to clear things up.
“We have a clearer understanding of their concerns about what we’re doing,” said Meeks. “I was impressed at how (Wyman) handled it.”
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