UPDATED: Va. voter registration extended through Thursday at midnight
Va. Department of Elections site was shut down for several hours on Tuesday
Updated, 9:45 a.m. Oct. 14
A federal judge granted a two-day extension for Virginians to register to vote Wednesday, ruling that the Virginia Department of Elections must allow registration to continue through 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
On Tuesday morning, the original deadline for Virginians to register to vote, a road crew in Chesterfield County accidentally cut a 10-gigabyte circuit, resulting in the shutdown of many key state websites, including the Virginia Department of Elections, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Virginia Employment Commission.
The elections site was restored before 4 p.m. Tuesday, allowing state residents access to an online portal where they could register to vote before the original 11:59 p.m. deadline. Local registrars’ sites also were affected.
However, several voting rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday night to extend the deadline by 48 hours and also add a one-day extension to Virginia’s early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. A hearing was set 9 a.m. Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Attorney General Mark Herring filed a proposed consent decree to extend the deadline to Thursday at midnight, as well as notifying the public of the reopening and extension of the registration period and providing Virginians with more information about alternative methods to register, if there is a system outage during the extension.
Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday afternoon that he doesn’t have the authority to extend the deadline for Virginians to register to vote, but that a court could. He said he would support an extension.
“We have been exploring all of our options to extend the voter registration deadline. That deadline is set in our code, and it does not appear that I have the authority to change it,” Northam said during his Tuesday news conference — his first public appearance since testing positive for COVID-19 late last month. “That is up to the courts.”
The Virginia Civic Engagement Table, New Virginia Majority, League of Women Voters of Virginia, Advancement Project National Office and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the injunction suit against the state Department of Elections, the State Board of Elections and elections commissioner Christopher Piper.
“The commonwealth 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,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed a suit in 2016 when an unknown number of Virginians were unable to register to vote because the elections site was overwhelmed. “Extending the registration deadline is a commonsense step that can be taken to address the potential disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible people across Virginia. This now marks two presidential election cycles in a row in which the state’s registration system has collapsed and we hope that this will counsel in favor of stronger systems and backstops to prevent mass disenfranchisement in the future.”
Some people attempting to vote earlier in the day were offered only provisional ballots, according to the groups. The suit requests one more day of early voting to provide adequate relief for the impacted voters, as well as “affirmative steps” to make sure the provisional ballots cast Tuesday are counted.
The timing was especially bad, as Virginia has seen a significant uptick in early voting and requests for absentee ballots; earlier this year, the General Assembly passed new policies allowing no-excuse absentee voting and extended early voting from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31. According to state officials, about 887,000 people in Virginia have already cast their votes in person, by mail or by delivering their ballot to a registrar’s office for the Nov. 3 general election. Oct. 23 is the last day to request an absentee ballot.
According to a news release from the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), the Verizon fiber was struck during work on a county roadside utilities project in Chester, near VITA’s headquarters, the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center. Repair work continued Tuesday afternoon. The circuit was installed this spring to allow more robust internet speed for state websites after most state employees moved to virtual work during the pandemic.
Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said that backup circuits in place before this spring are not as large as the one that was damaged, so several state websites were slowed down, including key public sites such as DMV and unemployment insurance.
In other news, Northam said that he was thankful that both he and first lady of Virginia Pam Northam both had only mild symptoms from the couple’s recent bout with COVID-19. He also said that 65 staff members with whom the Northams had come into close contact had tested negative for the coronavirus. The governor thanked the Richmond Department of Health for leading the contact tracing effort, which included people in seven health districts, after the Northams tested positive on Sept. 25.
Northam attributed the lack of COVID-19 spread to his administration’s continuous use of masks and other safety precautions, and warned Virginians to not be “cavalier” about the virus.