TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — A meltdown of Florida’s online voter-registration system hours before Monday’s deadline to sign up to vote in the November election prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to extend the deadline until 7 p.m. Tuesday, but voting-rights groups quickly filed a lawsuit alleging the state’s action didn’t go far enough.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee said she briefed DeSantis on Tuesday morning about “the challenges we encountered last night due to unprecedented volume and traffic to our website” and raised the specter of hackers infiltrating the online system.
Shortly after noon, Lee’s office announced that she was re-opening the voter-registration deadline for the Nov. 3 election until 7 p.m. Tuesday. Along with using the online system, Lee directed supervisors of elections, driver’s license offices, and tax collectors to stay open until 7 p.m. to accept voter-registration applications. Applications submitted by mail and postmarked by Tuesday also would be accepted, Lee said.
“During the last few hours (Monday), the RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov website was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour. We will work with our state and federal law enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process,” Lee said in the announcement.
Groups engaged in registration efforts swept the state in advance of Monday’s deadline, in what many believed was a show of enthusiasm for the November race between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“Of course, the grassroots organizations on both sides were knocking on doors until the very last moment yesterday, trying to encourage people to get involved in the electoral process. So, the onus is on the system to be working,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s top elected Democrat, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Nearly three-dozen organizations sent a letter to DeSantis and Lee early Tuesday, demanding that the voter-registration deadline be extended until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday because of the problems with the online system. Voting-rights groups followed later Tuesday by filing a lawsuit that asks a federal judge to ban state officials from enforcing Monday’s deadline and impose a new deadline of midnight on the second day following any court order.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is scheduled to hold a hearing in the lawsuit Wednesday morning.
Speaking to reporters at an event in The Villages, DeSantis defended the decision to extend the deadline until 7 p.m. Tuesday, saying the extra hours equate to “a similar timeframe from when we were experiencing the difficulties yesterday.”
“You can have the best site in the world, sometimes there’s hiccups on it,” he said, emphasizing that Floridians could register in person at driver’s license bureaus and other locations. “So this way, even when people get off of work, they are going to have until 7 o’clock where they can be able to go do that.”
But users began encountering problems with the online system — which has a history of problems in the run-up to voter-registration deadlines — on Saturday, according to the lawsuit filed by the Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and a Broward County resident who attempted to register online but was unable to complete an application.
As the coronavirus continues to plague Florida, voter-registration organizations relied heavily on the online system, “which has become an even more critical point of entry for civic participation than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the lawsuit.
Organizations revamped in-person canvassing efforts and focused on encouraging unregistered Floridians to use the state’s online system, the lawsuit said.
But users encountered a variety of problems, including intermittent error messages or failures of the system to respond, that “culminated in several extended periods when the system was completely unavailable” Monday evening, the lawsuit alleges.
Lee’s office was told of the problems by 5 p.m. Monday, the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. Nearly an hour later, she tweeted that the system was “online and working” but that she had “increased capacity” and that voters could register until midnight.
Shortly after Lee’s post, Twitter began to explode with reports of users encountering difficulties with the site, including numerous screenshots of error messages.
“State elections officials were warned well in advance that the online voter registration site was vulnerable to problems resulting from high usage,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued. “The state had every reason to prepare for increased traffic before the 2020 general election in particular, given the intense public interest in the election and the increased reliance on OVR (online voter registration) due to self-quarantining taking place across the state as a result of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and the state’s own data showing record numbers of registrations coming in through OVR.”
Voting-rights advocates for years have warned Lee’s office “about the security and safety” of the system, according to the letter sent to DeSantis and Lee on Tuesday by groups including All Voting is Local, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the League of Women Voters and the Campaign Legal Center.
“Florida’s online voter registration system has unfortunately broken repeatedly at precisely the moment it is needed most — the high volume days just before the voter registration deadline, or in this case, just hours before the book closing deadline,” the letter said.
The 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline “isn’t nearly enough,” Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of All Voting is Local, told the News Service.
“It’s going to take that much time just to get the word out that there’s an opportunity to register to vote. Then there’s still questions about whether the site’s ready to handle an increased load. Is it fixed yet? We don’t know,” Ashwell said. “This is just one more episode in this site not being set up to accommodate voters.”
The state’s decision to extend the deadline “is an acknowledgment that it failed the public when its online voter registration system crashed,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an email.
“A several hour extension leaves little time for meaningful notice and opportunity to be provided to the thousands of people impacted across the state. While we work to encourage the public to register, we will simultaneously push the state to expand the deadline further,” wrote Clarke.
DeSantis said the online system was working when he addressed the media around noon Tuesday, but he appeared to encourage Floridians to take advantage of the in-person opportunities to register.
“It’s working now, but as you know, I mean, if 500,000 people descend at the same time, I mean it creates a bottleneck and that’s what we see,” he said. “There were people who would go, couldn’t get through, and then they would try again and they would get through. But obviously, it wasn’t smooth because we had so much traffic. So hopefully, it will be fine but we also have these other ones (methods).”
Biden praised the extension in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, calling it “a win for our democracy.”
— News Service of Florida assignment manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.