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Group sues in effort to extend voter registration deadline

On Tuesday — the last day Virginia residents could register to vote — the state’s online voter registration system was down for several hours, prompting advocacy groups and politicians to call for a deadline extension.

The website crashing happened as 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 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 deadline.

By then, calls had already mounted for Virginia to extend the window for registering.

Tuesday night, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law and the Advancement Project, a nonprofit that focuses on racial justice, filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections, an anticipated effort to extend the voter registration deadline by 48 hours and inform the public of the change.

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The groups are also seeking a one-day extension of Virginia’s early voting period after registrar’s offices statewide—such as 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.

A similar action was taken in 2016 following a computer glitch through a lawsuit also filed the Lawyers’ Committee, which provided state residents with an additional 36 hours.

“Virginians’ voting rights shouldn’t be hanging by a fiber-optic cable,” said Jorge Vasquez, power and democracy director of Advancement Project National Office.

The next step following the shut down 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 briefing, Northam added that 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, Attorney General Mark Herring tweeted that he shares Virginia’s 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, which previously fought for and was granted an extension in 2016, said in a tweet Tuesday afternoon that the crashing of the website is a state failure, and as a result, is “the state’s responsibility to remedy this injustice.”

Along with the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Northern Virginia U.S. Representatives, the ACLU is pushing for an extension following the restoration of the system’s online portal.

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 NextGen Virginia state director Temi Amoye.

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 on the last day to register last week. 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 voter registration deadline 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.

Locally, Jake Washburne, general registrar and director of elections for Albemarle County, said it had been a trying day for his office. With the online systems down, Washburne said they were unable to load voter lookups for people trying to vote early.

“Today was a hiccup in the process for sure, but it wasn’t apocalyptic,” he said.

Instead, he said those looking to vote early were asked to return at a later date or fill out a provisional ballot, which around 40 people did.

Though voters were not able to register to vote online today, Washburne said they are still able to do it if they print out the form and postmark it with today’s date.

According to Melissa A. Morton, general registrar and director of elections for Charlottesville, the city was able to avoid using provisional ballots. Each night her office prints out an updated copy of the pollbook, she said, and so they were able to verify voters without accessing the online system.

“Here in the city we have a backup plan for everything and thankfully so because it turns out we needed one,” she said.

The registrar’s office has also seen an influx of calls from people unable to register online, Morton said. Many of these people are concerned that they the deadline may not be extended, she said, which is something outside of the control of the city registrar’s office.

As of Sunday, nearly 1 million Virginians had already cast their ballots.


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