“Just shy of a month from election day, with earliest mail-in ballots beginning to be counted, Florida has done it again,” Walker wrote. “In the final hours of Florida’s voter registration period, during an election year coinciding with a prolonged and incredibly damaging public health emergency, Florida’s voter registration website crashed, preventing thousands of potential voters from safely registering to vote before the midnight deadline.”
Evidence presented by the state paints “a disturbing picture of overworked elections staff, incomplete voter rolls, and election-day mayhem,” he said, and adding more time for registration would just add to that burden.
The ruling is expected to be appealed immediately to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The state system went haywire on Monday, several hours before the registration deadline, showing error messages and trapping people in user-verification pages that prevented them from completing and submitting their form.
Several groups that help people register to vote in the state had sued Secretary of State Laurel Lee because of the website’s problems. Lee said Tuesday that RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov was getting 1.1 million hits an hour as the midnight deadline approached, an “unprecedented volume and traffic to our website.” She reopened online registration the next day for about seven hours and announced the decision on Twitter. An estimated 50,000 people registered during that time.
But many other residents either didn’t know about the hastily announced extension or couldn’t divert from work to again try the site, according to attorneys representing the organizations that quickly went to court. Two of the groups, Dream Defenders and Organize Florida, said they had texted and called thousands of potential voters in the weeks leading up to the deadline to encourage them to register.
Given how often elections in the state are won with razor-thin margins — in 2018, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) defeated his Democratic rival by only 32,463 votes — voting rights activists said anything that hinders voting harms the state.
Florida is also a crucial swing state in the presidential race. Donald Trump won the state’s 29 electoral votes in 2016 after surpassing Hillary Clinton by less than 120,000 votes out of the 9 million ballots cast.
The attorneys told Walker during a teleconferenced hearing Thursday that problems with the website had started cropping up last week but hit a crisis point Monday evening as people repeatedly got error messages while trying to register.
The groups “were not able to carry out their mission to get voters registered,” attorney Stuart Naifeh told the judge. “Their mission was frustrated by the failure of the website.”
Eliese Hunt, a released felon hoping to vote for the first time, was elated Monday when the Florida Rights and Restoration Coalition confirmed that he was good to go. The coalition texted him that “my fines and fees were paid off, and I could register that day to vote in the upcoming election.”
He then tried to get through the online process, but it proved futile. “I want to register in this upcoming election,” Hunt, 29, said in an affidavit. “Voting is important to me because I have spent years rebuilding my life, and now that I feel like a full person again, I want to have the dignity of knowing that I can vote.”
Another potential voter, teacher Charlotte Bernhardt, contended the deadline extension Tuesday wasn’t enough.
“It did not provide sufficient time for a working American to go through the process, troubleshoot problems and get the registration processed,” Bernhardt said in another affidavit. “A longer extension would have allowed me to vote in the presidential election this year. It is very frustrating to me that I am not going to be part of a huge historical vote.”
Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Lee, said the state recognized the website problem Monday and remedied it by giving residents those extra seven hours the following day. “We have a very specific statute directed at us when it comes to online voter registration,” Jazil said. “When it comes to online voter registration, imposed on us is an obligation to have a working [electronic] system. … We fell short. We took corrective action.”
Jazil told the judge that extending the deadline a second time “would add noise and workload during this election cycle.” Some elections supervisors underscored that point, saying that allowing more time for registration would divert resources they need to process mail-in ballots and prepare for early voting to begin Oct. 19 in many jurisdictions.
“My staff and I have already been inundated with telephone calls at a rate that far exceeds any past election cycle because of the misinformation endemic in this election cycle,” Mark Earley, Leon County's supervisor of elections, said in an affidavit. “I cannot add more staff. We are bursting at the seams already while trying to maintain some semblance of social distancing working under these incredible stress levels.”
The pandemic has led to a huge surge in voters seeking alternatives to in-person registration and voting, and Walker said Thursday that he recognized that giving voters more time to sign up would add to the work in busy elections offices. But at the hearing and in his ruling, he pointed out that Florida has a poor track record even in less chaotic times.
The court “notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida,” he wrote. “Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science.”
Florida has one of the earliest registration deadlines in the nation. Federal law allows states to close registration up to 30 days before elections; Florida’s deadline is 29 days before Election Day.