Voter registration crash referred to state and federal law enforcement; pressure grows to extend deadline

Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Update: Secretary of State Laurel Lee issued this written statement Tuesday evening:

“The Florida Department of State has been in touch with state and federal law enforcement partners since yesterday to discuss the issues that affected Florida’s Online Voter Registration system on Monday, October 5, 2020. At this time, we have not identified any evidence of interference or malicious activity impacting the site. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide any additional information as it develops.”

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State elections officials are looking into whether the crash of Florida’s online voter registration system hours before the Monday deadline was the result of a “deliberate act,” as pressure mounts on Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend registration.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the Division of Elections, said in a written statement that she’d conferred with the governor Tuesday morning about “the status of the online voter registration system and the challenges we encountered last night due to unprecedented volume and traffic to our website.”

She added: “We’re exploring all options to ensure that all eligible registrants have the ability to register to vote and will work with our state and federal law-enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process.”

Lee promised an update soon, as did DeSantis communications director Fred Piccolo.

She announced the glitch shortly before 6 p.m. Monday on Twitter but said the system had been restored.

“Due to high volume, for about 15 minutes, some users experienced delays while trying to register. We have increased capacity. You can register until midnight tonight. Thank you to those who immediately brought this to our attention,” Lee wrote.

However, Democratic Cabinet member Nikki Fried has called upon DeSantis to extend the deadline for at least 24 hours to compensate for the outage.

“There were reports of people attempting to register for hours, even after the secretary of state announced that the website was up and running — this is unacceptable,” Fried wrote in a letter to the governor on Tuesday.

“The state should have a contingency plan in place for an error of this magnitude, which may have prevented thousands of Floridians from exercising their right to vote in the coming election. The deadline exists for a reason — and it is the right of every person in Florida who chooses to register to vote, to do so up until that deadline,” she wrote.

Fried, who serves as the independently elected commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, has already issued a fundraising appeal that cites the registration problem, urging supporters to “[h] lp me keep up the fight against voter suppression with a donation today.”

Midnight was the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 3 general election, although people also had the option of registering in person at their county elections supervisors’ offices up until the close of business.

Democrat Joe Biden appears to be leading President Trump in the polls but political observers have predicted the sort of tight race that has become the norm in Florida. For example, 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 Terri Rizzo said the glitch amounted to “blatant voter suppression.”

“This is about constitutional freedoms, not about politics — it’s about the fundamental right of everyone who is eligible to register to vote, regardless of political party, to make their voice heard at the ballot box,” Fried said in her letter.

“It is the state’s duty to ensure the website works as anticipated, to allow Floridians to exercise their constitutional rights. With hours taken away from the deadline due to errors, we have witnessed a potential violation of those rights.”

Others joined the call, including 34 voting- and civil-rights organizations that issued a joint letter asking the governor to extend registration to midnight Wednesday. They included the ACLU, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the AFL-CIO, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

“Florida’s voters deserve to have their voices heard in this and every election. Most importantly, they deserve a smooth registration process to ensure they can cast a ballot,” the organizations said.

“To ensure their safety and that they can be certain they have a voice in this election, it is imperative that your office give voters across the state more time to register to vote, no matter where they live, ensuring voters in all counties have fair and equitable access to the ballot.”

Democratic state Sens. Lori Berman of Delray Beach and Janet Cruz of Tampa issued a joint statement recalling past crashes involving the registration portal, including in 2018 under Gov. Rick Scott and on National Voter Registration Day in 2019. The Democratic Party sued the state following the 2018 incident to extend registration by one week.

The timing of these website outages in crucial moments where Floridians are engaging with our democracy is troubling. It is yet another example of an inadequate state website incapable of serving its critical function. We should take steps to fix these site deficiencies and restore public trust,” Berman said.

“A dangerous precedent is being established by continuing to allow this to happen,” Cruz said. “The inability to provide Floridians with their most basic and sacred right — to vote — is incomprehensible. How long will we accept the ‘high website traffic’ excuse for?”