"This is a dramatic step forward," Secretary of State Sam Reed said.
The Washington online registration system is not tied into the nationwide network of driver's-license records, a Reed aide said.
Reed, the state's chief elections officer, pushed the Legislature to approve a bill allowing online registration, and the measure was approved in the 2007 session.
"People do so much business now online that this is kind of a normal way many people want to transact their business, including with government and voter registration -- and this is particularly true with young people," Reed said.
"And that is our big challenge: to get this younger generation registered.
"So I think this is going to be very, very helpful in making it possible to get more people in the system by getting them registered."
In its first three days, the system recorded 1,634 online applications, Reed said.
Reed's initial attempt to win legislative approval of online registration failed in 2006. Support from lobbyists representing the state's college students helped push the bill through last year, he said.
The system does not allow prospective voters to actually register; instead it enables them to apply to be registered. But if the applications satisfy the county officials who will review them, the voters will be registered.
Online voter registration is restricted to applicants who hold either a Washington driver's license or a state-issued identification card.
Computer images of the signatures on those documents are stored electronically in state databases, and those images will be used to validate signatures on mail ballots, the voting method used by the overwhelming majority of Washington voters.
Initially, the state will print out the completed applications and mail them to county elections officials for processing. Once the necessary technology is in place, the applications will be transmitted electronically to the counties.
The penalties for providing false information on a voter registration application will apply to electronic registration: up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Ironically, Washington rolled out online registration the same week that Arizona experienced its first notable problem with the service since its debut in 2002, Arizona officials said. The system sputtered Jan. 7, delaying and possibly preventing some voters from registering on the last day to sign up to participate in Arizona's Feb. 5 presidential primary.
The registration system in Arizona is linked to the state's database of driver's licenses, which in turn is connected to a nationwide driver's-license information network -- and it was problems with that network that fouled up the voter-registration software, Arizona Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Tyne said.
Nonetheless, 16,573 Arizonans filled out online registrations Jan. 7, a single-day total eclipsed only by the more than 20,000 who signed up on the final day to register for the 2004 presidential election, Tyne said. Overall, more than six of 10 new registrations are filed online, he said.
"It's a hugely popular way for citizens to be able to register and participate in elections," he said.
Still, Reed said, "Any time you are relying on technology, there's a risk of something going down."