October 22, 2020

A crashed voter registration website is Floridians’ latest obstacle to the right to vote

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images The state extended the voting registration deadline, but that won’t solve all...

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

The state extended the voting registration deadline, but that won’t solve all of its issues.

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Florida’s track record on voting rights isn’t great, and Monday night provided another example for why that is. The state’s voter registration website crashed for several hours just before the deadline to vote in the general election. Although the state reopened voter registrations for seven hours to compensate for those missed during the crash, advocates say that wasn’t enough.

It is, however, all they have, as a federal district court judge on Friday denied their request to extend registration hours even longer — though not without some harsh words for the state and its long-standing issues with running elections.

“Notwithstanding the fact that cinemas across the country remain closed, somehow, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before,” Judge Mark Walker, of the Northern District of Florida court, wrote. “Just shy of a month from election day, with the earliest mail-in ballots beginning to be counted, Florida has done it again.”

Florida has one of the earliest voter registration deadlines in the country: October 5 by 11:59 pm. Florida’s voter registration website, RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov, crashed in the hours preceding that deadline, likely preventing tens of thousands of Floridians from being able to register. The state then extended the voter registration deadline to October 6 by 7 pm.

According to a statement from Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, the site had “an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour,” and the enormous volume caused the crash. Lee added that her office would be “working with our state and federal law enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process,” though later said in a statement to Recode that “we have not identified any evidence of interference or malicious activity impacting the site.”

During the crash, Lee’s tweets indicated that the interruption was brief and had been fixed by 6 pm, but several responses to those tweets said this was not the case. People complained that they had been trying for hours to register, and a Florida state representative tweeted just before 10 pm that the site still didn’t work. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the 7 pm deadline, announced at noon, was chosen to match how many hours the system was down.

This is not the first time a Florida government website has crashed at the time it’s most needed. The state’s unemployment website, overwhelmed by the surge in traffic, was notoriously glitchy in the first months of the pandemic, leaving many Floridians unable to apply for benefits or having to wait weeks to do so. Though a recent audit had found hundreds of system errors, no action was taken to fix them before the pandemic.

This isn’t even the first time Florida’s voter registration website has failed. The Florida Democratic Party accused the state’s Republican leaders of “blatant voter suppression” and pointed to website crashes before the 2020 primaries, a routine maintenance downtime the weekend before National Voter Registration Day in 2019, and site glitches a few days before the general election deadline in 2018. The Florida ACLU also noted that the website has a history of crashes that, it said, the state has made no effort to repair.

“During every major election cycle, Florida’s voter registration website falters,” Gaby Guadalupe, deputy communications director at the ACLU of Florida, told Recode. “Advocates warned that this would happen again during this critical election. The reality is the state needs to own this mistake, find a more permanent solution, and fix the online registration system.”

It’s also not the first time Florida has been accused of disenfranchisement. Until recently, the state restricted anyone convicted of a felony from voting, even after they’d finished their sentence. This barred as many as 1.4 million people10 percent of the state’s population — from the right to vote in the state, and disproportionately affected Black people. In 2018, an amendment to the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to ex-felons won the popular vote, only for the Republican-led legislature to pass a law that required ex-felons to pay any financial penalties from their convictions before they could be allowed to vote. Activists have scrambled to help ex-felons pay those penalties and re-enfranchise as many of them as possible. The state’s attorney general has called for an investigation into that effort, citing “potential violations of election laws.”

Florida does, at least, make it relatively easy to vote by mail. Voters don’t need to provide an excuse when they request their ballot, they are able to track their ballot once they mail it back, and if their ballot is rejected, they must be told and given the opportunity to fix the ballot so it can be counted. That said, Florida also has a history of rejecting an excessive number of mail-in ballots.

Several state voting rights groups sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lee to extend the registration deadline by two more days, saying the state had plenty of time and warning to adequately prepare the website to handle anticipated increased traffic but didn’t do so. Judge Walker seemed to agree, castigating the state throughout his decision.

“In this case, potential voters attempted to perform their civic duty, to exercise their fundamental right, only to be thwarted, once again, by a state that seemingly is never prepared for an election,” Walker wrote. “This case is about failure on the part of a civil servant, whose responsibility is to run an election system, that will cost thousands of potential voters their fundamental right to vote in the upcoming election.”

Even so, Walker found, avoiding the “chaos” that another registration deadline extension would cause outweighed the harm done to those disenfranchised citizens.

The good news is that 50,000 Floridians registered to vote during the extended hours, mitigating some of the damage. A reliable website that didn’t crash when it was most needed, of course, would have mitigated that damaged completely.

“Floridians shouldn’t face unnecessary obstacles to their right to vote because of inadequate state software,” Guadalupe said.

Update, October 9, 1:30 pm ET: Updated to add court decision denying the deadline extension.

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