On Tuesday — the last day Virginia residents could register to vote — the state’s online voter registration system was down for several hours, prompting politicians to call for a deadline extension and advocacy groups to file a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections.
A court hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning.
The website’s crash was a result of a Verizon cable being “inadvertently struck” during an ongoing Chesterfield County sewer installation project outside the headquarters of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, according to the agency, which provides technical support for multiple state entities such as the Virginia Employment Commission and the Virginia Department of Health.
Both the employment and health sites were also hit with connectivity issues throughout the day.
The cable — part of a 10-gigabyte circuit installed to handle the shift to remote work due to the pandemic — was repaired by 3:30 p.m., allowing the Virginia Department of Elections’ online portal to continue operations eight hours before the deadline.
By then, calls had already mounted for Virginia to extend the window for registering.
On Tuesday night, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law as well as the Advancement Project, a nonprofit that focuses on racial justice, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Elections in an effort to extend the voter registration deadline by 48 hours and ensure that the government would inform the public of the change if made.
Hours later, Attorney General Mark Herring asked the Eastern District Court to extend the registration deadline through Thursday, citing in a response to the groups’ lawsuit that “defendants recognize the importance of access to the voting booth.”
A hearing is set for Wednesday at 9 a.m.
In 2016, following a computer glitch, Virginians were given a similar extension. A lawsuit, which also was filed by the Lawyers’ Committee, resulted in state residents being given an additional 36 hours to register to vote.
This time, the groups are also seeking a one-day extension of Virginia’s early voting period after registrar’s offices statewide — such as in Albemarle County and Virginia Beach — cited impacts on Tuesday’s in-person voting. With the system shut down, voters could not be checked in on the poll books and were given provisional ballots, or a vote set aside until officials can verify voter eligibility.
The groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the New Virginia Majority and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table.
“Virginians’ voting rights shouldn’t be hanging by a fiber-optic cable,” said Jorge Vasquez, power and democracy director of the Advancement Project’s national office.
The next step following the shutdown of the elections website hinged on an outside plaintiff bringing it to the courts since Gov. Ralph Northam doesn’t have the authority to change the voter registration deadline. In a scheduled COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Northam said he would support a court-ordered extension.
Rita Davis, legal counsel to the governor, cited legal procedures as for why the administration couldn’t file a lawsuit itself. Shortly after the website was rebooted, Herring had tweeted that he shares Virginians’ concerns regarding the outage and to “stay tuned.”
Virginia law doesn’t currently outline authority measures when it comes to voter registration applications, leaving it up to litigation and the General Assembly. The closest to acknowledging alternative methods deals with absentee ballots and ensuring the right to vote when living out of state.
Prior to the lawsuit filing, the ACLU of Virginia said in a tweet Tuesday afternoon that the website’s crash was a state failure, and as a result, it is “the state’s responsibility to remedy this injustice.”
In a statement Tuesday, NextGen Virginia, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushes for increased voter participation, said the outage was “deeply concerning.”
“Our election officials must follow the lead of other states in extending the deadline so that anyone who wants to vote, can,” said Temi Amoye, NextGen Virginia’s state director.
The calls for extending voter registration deadlines have echoed across the country in the past month, including from the only other state to so far experience an outage on the deadline day: Florida.
Florida officials extended the voter registration deadline until 7 p.m. the following day after glitches with its online portal last week on the last day to register. Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said in a news release that the site was inundated by an “unprecedented” 1.1 million requests per hour.
In Arizona, a federal judge ruled for the voter registration deadline to be extended from Oct. 5 to Oct. 23 — nearly three weeks — due to concerns that the pandemic had jolted voter registration efforts. Both extensions were met with criticism and challenged in courts.
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