Lawsuit calls for voter registration extension in Va. following online portal shutdown

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he is exploring all options to extend the voter registration deadline, after the state’s online registration portal was knocked offline Tuesday when a fiber cable was inadvertently cut during roadwork.

The massive outage, which lasted for several hours Tuesday, came on the final day of voter registration ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The glitch hobbled the Virginia Department of Elections’ online citizens portal, and local registrars’ offices across Virginia were also hit with connectivity issues, the department said.

As of 3:30 p.m., the website was back up, the department announced on Twitter. Virginia residents have until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to register online using the system.

Before the outage was fixed, there were growing calls to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline.

Northam said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon that he doesn’t have the legal authority to extend the voter registration deadline, which is mandated by Virginia law, but that he supports a court-ordered extension of the deadline.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit Tuesday night saying voter registration must be extended for 48 hours and that the state should “make a significant effort” to tell the public about the change.

The suit claims that voters who tried to register to vote before before the deadline will become disenfranchised in the upcoming elections because they were unable to do so, “through no fault of their own.”

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Virginia Department of Elections; the Virginia State Board of Elections; elections board chairman Robert H. Brink and vice chairman John O’Bannon; Christopher Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections; and Jamilah D. Lecruise, secretary of the board of elections.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a news release that Virginia “failed the public and it must grant a significant extension to ensure all Virginians are given an equal opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

Several groups, including the League of Women Voters of Virginia, have joined The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s suit.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced Tuesday that he has filed a brief in federal court asking that the state’s voter registration deadline be extended.

Herring’s brief supports the lawsuit brought against the Virginia Department of Elections and State Board of Elections, saying that the defendants agreed with the groups seeking to extend the deadline and that an order from the court would “vindicate the public interest of ensuring access to the voting booth and election integrity.”

The ACLU of Virginia said on Twitter it was “critical” that Herring “step up and ask the court to extend the voter registration deadline,” adding, “The state is responsible for the technical failure, it’s only fair that the state works to remedy it.”

“I share Virginians’ deep concerns about the registration system outage,” Herring said in a tweet earlier. “I’ve always taken action to ensure you can safely cast your ballot in-person or by mail and to ensure your vote will count, and we are approaching this situation in exactly the same way. Stay tuned.”

In 2016, a federal judge extended Virginia’s voter-registration by 36 hours after the voter registration website crashed on the final day of voter registration.

In addition to election systems, other government websites were also affected by Tuesday’s outage, including websites for the Virginia Employment Commission and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Those websites were also back up by Tuesday afternoon.

The Virginia Information Technologies Agency said in a statement earlier Tuesday the fiber cable was inadvertently struck early Tuesday morning during a roadside utilities project off Route 10 in Chester, Virginia, south of Richmond. The fiber cable, owned by Verizon, is located near a state-owned data center in Chesterfield County.

Crews worked all day to repair the cut fiber.

Virginia Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said Tuesday afternoon crews were working on a temporary solution to bring systems back online, while Verizon crews would continue to work on a permanent repair to the cable.

Conner said the cut occurred on a 10-gigabyte circuit that had been installed in the spring to handle increased workloads from the shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conner said the state does have backups, but they were overwhelmed Tuesday by high-demand, which cause web applications to slow.

A message on the voter registration website Tuesday read: “Due to a network outage the Citizen Portal is temporarily unavailable. We are working with our network providers to restore service as quickly as possible.”

Echoes of 2016

This isn’t the first time Virginia’s online systems have crashed on the crucial final day of registration.

In 2016, thousands of Virginians attempting to register to vote by the deadline overwhelmed the online system, causing it to crash.

Prompted by a federal lawsuit, a judge later extended the registration deadline by a day and a half to give people who were locked out of the system more time to register.

There were growing calls for the registration deadline this year to be extended. In a statement, a trio of House Democrats from Northern Virginia — Reps. Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton — called for a court order to push back the deadline by 72 hours — three days.

“The shutdown of Virginia’s online voter registration threatens to prevent many Virginians from casting their ballots in the 2020 election. … It is imperative that the deadline for Virginians to register to vote be extended,” the statement from the lawmakers said. “We hope the courts will swiftly grant such an extension, and we hope they will take into account the disruptions to registration that have already occurred and the time that it will take to inform the public about new opportunities to register.”

Earlier Tuesday, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said on Twitter he was calling for this year’s registration deadline to be extended because of the outage.

Citing legal procedures, Rita Davis, the governor’s legal counsel, suggested the Northam administration couldn’t file a lawsuit itself to extend the deadline but would instead support such a lawsuit filed by a citizen plaintiff.

Loudoun board of election: ‘Wrong time’ for this to happen

Local election boards said they were able to carry on some activities during the outage, including early voting.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest county by population, director of elections Gary Scott said the outage wasn’t affecting the actual casting of ballots during early voting, because backup pollbook systems were still running.

“Everything else has come to a stop,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve got 300 staff sitting around here waiting to mail out absentee ballots and process registration applications who really can’t do anything,” he said.

In neighboring Loudoun County, director of elections Judy Brown said early voting also carried on through the outage and there were no delays.

However, election staff members were unable to print labels to mail ballots to voters or process voter registrations that had previously come in, she said.

“It is the wrong time of year for this to have happened,” Brown said.

In Prince William County, local election officials said in a statement that they were also using a workaround to keep early voting continuing even with the state website down. The local office reminded voters that paper applications must be postmarked by Oct. 13 or voters can drop off their filled-out registration applications at one of the county’s three early voting sites by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Some areas had reported problems with early voting during the outage. In Albemarle County, Virginia, which includes Charlottesville, the board of elections said it could not check in early voters and they would have to cast a provisional ballot. Later, the county said election staff had found a workaround so voters could successfully cast their ballots.

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli contributed to this report.

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