RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked a federal judge on Wednesday to extend the state’s voter registration deadline following a computer crash that prevented some Virginians from signing up this week.
“Let’s let them get in to vote,” McAuliffe (D) said. “I think it’s a great thing for democracy.”
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton scheduled a hearing on the matter for 11 a.m. Thursday in Alexandria.
McAuliffe made the request one day after a civil rights group filed a lawsuit to extend the deadline, arguing that the state’s technological failures should not deprive citizens of their right to vote.
A breakdown of the state’s online voter registration system Sunday and Monday kept residents from signing up before the cutoff at 11:59 p.m. Monday.
The number of Virginians affected was unknown because the system did not keep a record of those who were unable to complete the task. But one local registrar estimated it was in the “tens of thousands.”
Administration officials said their hands were tied because the deadline was set in state code. On Wednesday, McAuliffe agreed that the deadline should be extended.
“We are hopeful that we will secure a swift resolution that will give eligible voters in Virginia the opportunity to register to vote and participate in this election cycle,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the plaintiffs along with attorneys from the Washington firm Arnold & Porter.
A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said his office was working to get the matter decided as quickly as possible.
“There is no authority for the Governor or Department of Elections to extend the deadline,” Herring spokesman Michael Kelly said via email. “Only a judge can order an extension.”
Since the last presidential election, Virginia has switched from paperwork to an online voter registration system. Registrars have complained in recent months about recurring glitches and severe slowdowns.
Problems resurfaced Sunday, after Facebook and Google alerted Virginians to the state’s looming registration deadline. The system became overwhelmed Monday, as the deadline came and went.
On Tuesday, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a complaint on behalf of two voter-registration groups and a Charlottesville couple who were unable to get on the rolls. Filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, it names state elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés and other state election officials as defendants.
Republican leaders had criticized the administration’s handling of voter registration, but at least initially none of them offered any opinion an extension.
McAuliffe defended the registration system, attributing the crash to an unprecedented surge in registration attempts.
“I think Edgardo and his team were prepared,” McAuliffe said, noting that in the first 17 days of October, 120,000 people registered to vote online. “We have never in Virginia history seen anything like it,” he said. “I know some people are talking about voter apathy. We’re not seeing that here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Until this year, the largest number of registrations submitted in a single day was about 2,200, Cortés said. That single-day online registration record has been broken three times this year in response to social-media campaigns urging Virginians to register: 8,000 signed up one day in February, ahead of the deadline to register for the primary; 17,000 on Sept. 23, ahead of National Voter Registration Day; 21,000 managed to do so on Monday, despite the day’s technical issues.
Asked about criticism from House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) that faulted the administration for the breakdown, McAuliffe said the problem was the Republican-led legislature.
“I tried to put more money in the budget last year to buy new voting machines, and they wouldn’t even vote for that,” McAuliffe said. He said it would take $10 million to $20 million to upgrade the registration system.