FL elections chief extends voter registration until 7 Tuesday following online portal meltdown; federal lawsuit filed

Last fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, the League of Women Voters urged voters to register, update their signatures, and vote for the candidates of their choice, whether at the polls on Election Day, in early voting, or by mail-in ballot. Credit: League of Women Voters of Florida

The DeSantis administration has extended voter registration to 7 p.m. Tuesday to compensate for the crash on Monday of the state’s online voter registration portal.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the Division of Elections, said voters could register using the portal or in person at local elections supervisors’ offices, local tax collector’s offices, drivers’ license offices, or by mail if the application is postmarked Tuesday.

Laurel Lee, Secretary of State of Florida. Credit: Wikipedia.

She blamed Monday’s problems on “unprecedented” demand by people who wanted to vote.

“During the last few hours, the RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov website was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour,” Lee said in a written statement.

“We will work with our state and federal law-enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process,” she added. However, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said via email that the agency has not opened a formal investigation.

That wasn’t good enough for a coalition of voting-rights groups that filed a federal lawsuit seeking an additional extension plus a public service campaign via TV, radio, and social media to alert potential voters that registration remains open.

“It is the responsibility of Secretary Lee to ensure Florida has an online voter registration system that is safe, digitally secure and able to handle a high level of site traffic on voter registration deadlines,” Jorge Vasquez, Power and Democracy Director of Advancement Project National Office, said in a written statement.

“Florida has had multiple years and multiple elections to address the site’s digital security and update its faulty online voter registration system. No voter should be denied their right to vote during a global health pandemic because Florida did not have a functioning online voter registration system,” Vasquez said.

The complaint seeks an extension until ” the second day after the date of any order of the court.”

During a news conference at The Villages, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the length of the extension corresponds to the period when the online portal was down.

“It was about seven hours. You started to see problems around 5 o’clock. Obviously, the deadline was midnight so this is a similar thing,” the governor said.

Nikki Fried, the Democratic state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, was among those clamoring for a 24-hour registration extension. Others included members of the state Senate and a large number of civil- and voting-rights groups.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Following Tuesday’s announcement, Fried did not sound satisfied. She noted on Twitter that “the new 7:00 PM deadline forces Floridians to scramble to register, and that’s only if they see the news.”

The Republican Party of Florida on its Twitter feed took note of the extension and provided the portal’s web addess.

DeSantis seemed to steer people toward in-person registration.

“We really think it’s important that there also be live people that can help, that it’s not just internet or nothing. You can have the best site in the world, sometimes there’s hiccups on it. This way, people when they get off work they’re going to have until 7 o’clock to go do that,” he said.

“It’s working now but, as you know, if 500,000 people descend at the same time, I mean, it creates a bottleneck.”

Regarding the lawsuit, other than the Advancement Project, groups supporting it were Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition. Also named as a plaintiff was Augusta Sandino Christian Namphy, described as a Broward County resident whose attempts to register for the first time were frustrated by the meltdown.

The complaint says the groups had abandoned in-person voter-registration drives because of COVID-19 and instead relied on the state’s portal, designing their own websites to direct registrants to the state site.

The action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, names DeSantis and Lee. It asserts “deprivation under color of state law of rights secured by the United States Constitution,” specifically the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Defendants’ failure to extend the voter registration deadline will frustrate organizational plaintiffs’ missions by interfering with their efforts to register voters and expand participation in the upcoming presidential election, and has already deprived plaintiff Namphy of the opportunity to register and vote in the upcoming presidential election,” it says.

It cites a history of meltdowns at critical moments, including registration deadlines in advance of the 2018 general election, the February presidential primaries, the August state primaries, and National Voter Registration Day in 2019.

“State elections officials were warned well in advance that the online voter registration site was vulnerable to problems resulting from high usage. A persistent problem is that the … site becomes inoperative during periods of heavy usage, especially on or around the deadline to register to vote in an upcoming election, called the ‘book closing’ day,” the complaint asserts.

“The outages also substantially disrupted voter registration organizations’ operations during the final push, interrupting phone banks and other outreach, and forcing organizations to divert staff time to troubleshoot and attempt to help registrants clear the burdensome hurdles erected by the faulty system,” it continues.

Midnight Monday — or more precisely 11:59 p.m. — had been the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 3 general election via the portal or by close of business at county elections supervisors’ offices.

Florida is the biggest battleground state and elections here tend to be decided by close margins; DeSantis defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by just 32,463 votes in the 2018 gubernatorial race out of more than 8.2 million cast.

Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo complained Monday evening that the glitch amounted to “blatant voter suppression.”

Fried has already issued a fundraising appeal that cites the registration problem, urging supporters to “[h]elp me keep up the fight against voter suppression with a donation today.”