Florida governor extends voter registration after site crash

Deadline to register extended until 7 p.m. Tuesday

Florida Online Voter Registration website. (WPLG)

THE VILLAGES, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is extending the state’s voter registration deadline after heavy traffic crashed the state’s online system and potentially prevented thousands of enrolling to cast ballots in next month’s presidential election.

DeSantis says he will extend the deadline that expired Monday until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“Well, so what the secretary of state did -- it’s just been announced -- is that they are opening the window from noon to seven today. So basically similar timeframe when you started experiencing problems,” DeSantis said.

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In addition to online registration, DeSantis ordered elections, motor vehicle and tax collectors offices to stay open until 7 p.m. local time for anyone who wants to register in person.

DeSantis said that any registrations that are postmarked Tuesday will also be accepted.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee says the online registration system “was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour” during the last few hours of Monday. Lee said officials will be working with state and federal law enforcement partners “to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process.”

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.

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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

Last year, state officials confirmed that election-related servers of at least two Florida counties were breached by Russian meddlers. No votes or records were tampered with.

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.”

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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.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani was among the list of leaders who called on the governor Monday night to extend the deadline following site issues.

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 the group sued Virginia in 2016 after its computer system crashed just before the deadline, winning an extension that allowed thousands of additional voters to register.

Following the news of the extension on Tuesday, Eskamani encouraged Floridians to use the extra day to get registered.

State officials are asking anyone who is not trying to register to vote to stay off the site to allow others the opportunity to do so.

“Last night, we experienced an extremely high volume of traffic to the Online Voter Registration System,” Lee said. “If you are NOT registering to vote, we ask that you do your part for your fellow Floridians and please do not try to access RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov during this time and drive up traffic to the site.”

DeSantis said registering online isn’t always the best option for everyone, especially when a website becomes overwhelmed, so he wants Floridians to be aware of other ways they can get registered to vote.

“We really think it’s important that that there also be live people that can help. And that it’s not just internet or nothing because I mean, you know, you can have the best site in the world sometimes there’s hiccups on it. And so this way people and when they get off from work they’re gonna have till seven o’clock where they could be able to go do that,” DeSantis said.

Anyone with questions is encouraged to contact the Division of Elections' Voter Assistance Hotline at 1-866-308-6739. If you are hearing or speech impaired, please contact the division using the Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771 (TDD), 1-800-955-8770 (voice) or 1-877-955-8773 (Español).

This is a developing story. Stay with News 6 and ClickOrlando.com for updates.

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