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Florida governor extends voter registration after site crash

Brendan Farrington, Bobcaina Calvan and Terry Spencer
Associated Press

Tallahassee, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the state’s voter registration deadline Tuesday after he said heavy traffic crashed the state’s online system and potentially prevented thousands of enrolling to cast ballots in next month’s presidential election.

DeSantis extended the deadline that expired Monday until 7 p.m. Tuesday. In addition to online registration, DeSantis ordered elections, motor vehicle and tax collectors offices to stay open until that hour for anyone who wants to register in person. He also said any forms postmarked by Tuesday will be accepted.

A sample of a vote-by-mail ballot is shown at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Doral, Fla.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the voting system, said the online registration system “was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour” during the last few hours of Monday. Officials said many of the requests were likely repeated attempts by those who failed to get into the system.

Lee’s office is investigating the overload, which began just before 5 p.m. Monday, seven hours before the deadline. It continued through the night.

“You can have the best site in the world, but sometimes there are hiccups,” DeSantis said during a press conference at The Villages, a large retirement community in central Florida. “If 500,000 people descend at the same time, it creates a bottleneck.”

CEO Matthew Prince of Cloudflare, the internet infrastructure company that protects Florida’s elections website, tweeted that he has seen no indication that the system had been hit by a cyberattack.

Still, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned elections officials nationwide last week that cyberattacks could disrupt their systems during the run-up to the election. They particularly noted “distributed denial-of-service” attacks, which inundate a computer system with requests, potentially clogging up servers until the system becomes inaccessible to legitimate users.

The potential for outside meddling is an especially sensitive issue in Florida, a key battleground state in November’s election between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. The state has lingering questions about Russian hacking during the election four years ago.

Whatever caused the disruption, it threw up a roadblock for those trying to register. Sarah Dinkins, a Florida State University student, tried to help her younger sister register Monday night. They began trying about 9 p.m. and by 10:30 p.m. had not been successful.

“I feel very frustrated,” she said. “If the voting website doesn’t work, fewer people potentially Democratic voters will be able to vote.”

The outage impacted many Florida felons, who just received the right to vote in a 2018 state referendum that passed overwhelmingly – if they have completed probation and don’t have any outstanding fines or fees. Murderers and sex offenders are still banned.

Desmond Meade, executive director of The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the group heard from dozens of felons who couldn’t access the system. Meade wrote to DeSantis asking for a registration extension.

This is not the first major computer shutdown to affect the state government this year. For weeks in the spring, tens of thousands of Floridians who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t file for unemployment benefits because of repeated crashes by that overwhelmed computer system, delaying their payments. DeSantis replaced the director overseeing that system but blamed the problems on his predecessor, fellow Republican Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator.

Democrats jumped on the latest issue, saying it and the unemployment fiasco show that the DeSantis administration is inept and accused it of trying to stop people from voting.

“The utter incompetence of Gov. Ron DeSantis in allowing the state’s voter registration website to crash on the very last day to register for the upcoming November election is, sadly, completely believable,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “His administrative buffoonery in operating the state’s unemployment system telegraphed today’s executive ineptitude. However, this particular blunder intimates a continuing pattern of voter suppression that the governor has become notorious for.”

A civil rights group had threatened to sue if the governor did not extend the deadline. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the breakdown would unjustly deprive thousands of casting ballots for president and other offices.

Kristen Clarke, the group’s president, said after DeSantis’ announcement that her group will push the state to extend the deadline even further, saying it “failed the public” when the system crashed.

“No Floridian should be disenfranchised because of the state’s ineptitude,” she said. ––

Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami, Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. AP writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.