Lawsuit filed to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline after online system goes down for hours

Virginia News

The Virginia Department of Elections said the citizen portal was back up just before 3:30 p.m. Gov. Northam supports an extension but said Tuesday that it would require a court order.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A lawsuit seeking to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline was filed Tuesday night after the state’s Department of Election’s online portal was shut down for more than five hours on the last day to register to vote.

A group led by the New Virginia Majority Educational Fund filed the lawsuit seeking to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline through Oct.15.

Our democracy is strongest when we all have an opportunity to participate in our free and fair elections. The system wide failure impacted Virginians across the Commonwealth, preventing people from registering to vote for the first time or updating their registrations, and prevented many voters from casting a regular ballot during in-person early voting. To ensure that every Virginian has an opportunity to participate in our democracy, it is imperative that the court provides the requested relief for those affected. Just as we have done in the past, New Virginia Majority will continue to defend Virginians’ access to the ballot box.

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority

You can read the full lawsuit here:

The outage came after a fiber cable near a Chesterfield data center that provides IT services to multiple Virginia agencies was “inadvertently” severed, causing issues with the department’s online system and other agencies’ sites.

The Virginia Information Technologies Agency sent a tweet out at 9 a.m. explaining that a fiber cut in Chester “near the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center (CESC) is impacting data circuits and virtual private network (VPN) connectivity for multiple Commonwealth agencies.” The Virginia Department of Elections said the issue “affected the citizen portal along w/ registrar’s offices.”

VITA said that the “Verizon fiber had been inadvertently struck as part of activities related to a Chesterfield County roadside utilities project.”

In a statement, Verizon spokesperson Richard Young told 8News that “a crew working overnight on a roadside utilities project severed fiber cables in Chesterfield that serve a data center managed by the Virginia Information Technology Agency.” Young said service was restored at 2:30 p.m.

Workers repair the cut cable impacting voter registration in Virginia (Photos: 8News)

Nearly 1 million voters in Virginia have already cast their ballot for this year’s election but calls to extend the registration deadline mounted after people trying to register and election officials began reporting issues on Tuesday.

Local general registrars said the issue did not impact early voting but prevented them from processing absentee ballot requests and voter registration updates.

“No absentee ballots or applications can be processed without the system,” Teresa Smithson, Hanover County’s elections chief, told 8News. “We cannot process applications that have been mailed or delivered to our office. All application received by 5PM today will be processed because they made the deadline.”

Registrars across the region shared similar issues with 8News, with Chesterfield’s general registrar Constance Hargrove saying that the county could not verify voter registration or process mail absentee applications due to the outage.

Henrico’s elections chief, Mark Coakley, said the county issued “ballots in provisional envelopes for the voters to fill out their registration information. Once verified, all the ballots will be counted.”

“It is also impacting our ability to verify for a voter whether they are already registered or not,” Richmond’s general registrar Kirk Showalter said. “If someone is unsure, our best piece of advice is to come in person to register or complete a hard copy application and get it postmarked by today. All City post offices have applications.”

“It’s like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich blind folded and in the dark but we are getting it done,” Smithson added.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said during Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing that his office has explored all options and that he supports an extension to the deadline but that state code doesn’t appear to allow him to make the directive. The governor said that an extension would require a court order.

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that sued in 2016 to extend Virginia’s registration deadline, said Tuesday that they plan on filing a motion after this year’s issues. “We anticipate filing litigation to secure relief for those who are affected,” Ian D. Weiner, a member of the committee, told 8News. He added the group plans on filing the lawsuit “later tonight.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and voting advocacy groups have called for an extension. Attorney General Mark Herring tweeted that he shares “Virginians’ deep concerns about the registration system outage” and said to “stay tuned,” signaling that his office could file a motion requesting an extension.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement in support of an extension as well. “We cannot allow system outages to disrupt and keep Virginians from exercising their constitutional right to vote. The VLBC supports efforts to request that the courts provide relief for Virginians impacted by this system-wide outage as we continue to protect and expand access to the ballot box,” the caucus said.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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