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 has reopened voter registrations for a day to compensate for the hours missed during the crash, advocates say it’s not enough.
“The extension is important, but it may not be enough to reach all Floridians who were impacted,” Gaby Guadalupe, deputy communications director at the ACLU of Florida, told Recode.
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 — the state has asked people not to go to the site unless they are actually trying to register to vote, to avoid the traffic issues it had the night before — crashed in the hours preceding that deadline, preventing many Floridians from being able to register. The state extended the voter registration deadline to October 6 by 7 pm. Prospective voters have until then to register online or in person, and mailed applications must be postmarked by October 6.
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,” but didn’t provide details on what led them to suspect this might be the case (Lee did not return a request for comment).
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,” Guadalupe said. “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 people — 10 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.
There is a chance the registration deadline could be extended further: Several state voting rights groups are suing 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. The 7 pm deadline extension, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs said, was “not good enough.”
The extended deadline is good news for Floridians who were locked out of registering on Monday night, but a reliable website that is free from glitches and crashes and can handle a large amount of traffic would be even better.
“Floridians shouldn’t face unnecessary obstacles to their right to vote because of inadequate state software,” Guadalupe said.
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