Millions of Floridians were unable to access the Department of State’s online voter registration portal after the website crashed just hours before the midnight deadline on Oct. 5 to register for the November general election. The state attributed the crash to “unprecedented volume and traffic” in a statement the following morning.
“During the last few hours, the RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov website was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour,” said Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a Republican appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Lee and DeSantis extended the voter deadline by 19 hours to 7 p.m. local time on Oct. 6 in response to the malfunction.
It wasn’t the first time that increased volume has caused trouble for Florida digital services. The same thing happened on Oct. 9, 2018, which was the deadline to register for the midterm election that year. For months now, the state has been under scrutiny both at home and nationwide for its troubled unemployment website.
The state’s voter registration portal also suffered access problems in March around the Florida presidential primary, and last year it was taken down for maintenance shortly before National Voter Registration Day, according to Politico.
This latest technical snafu comes on the eve of what remains a tightly-contested presidential race in Florida. With more than four million ballots already cast nationwide, voter turnout is projected to shatter recent records according to Reuters.
“We’ve never seen this many people voting so far ahead of an election,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who administers the United States Elections Project. McDonald anticipates an astonishing 150 million votes cast and nearly 65% turnout, a number unseen since 1908.
Concern about election security arose shortly after the crash, as Lee promised the State Department would work with state and federal authorities to investigate whether there were any attempts to compromise the voting process.
While the FBI Tampa office would not comment on whether or not it had opened an investigation into the matter, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not begun investigating, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
In May 2019, the FBI and Homeland Security confirmed to Gov. DeSantis that Russian military intelligence had hacked two counties’ voter registration systems in 2016, but it remains classified which two fell victim. As the largest swing state in the country, Florida would be a valuable target for foreign actors seeking to manipulate or undermine the U.S. election process.
The decision to extend the voter registration deadline came after a burst of criticism from state Democrats. Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo called the crash “blatant voter suppression,” while Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called on her cabinet colleague Ron DeSantis to extend the deadline by at least 24 hours.
“This is about fairness, protecting constitutional rights, and staying true to our word as the state of Florida,” said Fried in her letter to the governor.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, agreed that the crash was “disappointing,” and the state needed to provide a second chance for voters who were unable to register. He called the governor’s extension “reasonable and appropriate.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also praised the extension, calling it a “win for our democracy” on Twitter.
Others weren’t so laudatory. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-FL, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said an extra seven hours would only confuse voters and not give enough time to inform those who could not register that Monday.
“A governor known for voter suppression should always err on the side of generous voter accommodation when he screws up like this,” Wasserman-Schultz said.
Several advocacy groups, including Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition sued DeSantis and Lee for the crash. Thirty-five voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters and NAACP, sent the governor a letter calling for the registration deadline to be extended to midnight on Wednesday.
“Florida deserves better,” said Brad Ashwell, the Florida director for All Voting is Local, one of the organizations on the letter. He said his group tried warning the state about the faulty website.
With the extended deadline now in the past, Florida rapidly approaches a contentious election. Voting rights has been a key issue leading up to November, and in a state with an infamous history of presidential recounts, the voter registration fiasco may be a grim warning of what is yet to come.
Featured image: The Old Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. Unmodified photo by Daniel Vorndran used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/2HZslpM)
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