Florida fights to avoid extending voter registration

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Voters prepare to turn in their mail-in ballots, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. | AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his chief election official said the state has no reason to extend a voter registration deadline and that doing so would undermine the public’s faith in the upcoming presidential election.

The argument was made late Wednesday in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, where civil rights groups are suing after the state’s voter registration portal failed on Oct. 5, the last day people could sign up to vote.

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Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered the state to respond to the lawsuit in advance of a preliminary injunction hearing set for Thursday morning.

Lawyers for the DeSantis administration, relying on statements from state and local election officials, said reopening voter registration rolls would cause confusion in the final weeks before Election Day, when President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden will be on the ballot and officials predict record turnout in the battleground state.

“Another extension under the circumstances will serve to reinforce the confusion and mistrust voters have surrounding this election, further strengthening the rampant misinformation and disinformation campaigns that are already undermining the November general election,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said in a declaration accompanying the state filing.

Attorneys for the state said election supervisors need time to prepare and sought to undercut the groups bringing the lawsuit because they relied on testimony from two people who already are registered to vote.

The state’s online voter portal crashed on Oct. 5 under a surge of heavy traffic, prompting Secretary of State Laurel Lee to extend the deadline for registration from Oct. 5 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 6.

Seven civil rights and left-leaning groups sued Lee and DeSantis, both Republicans, seeking to push the deadline back at least another two days. The groups admonished state officials for the site’s failure, saying online registration was crucial due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday by The Advancement Project National Office, Demos, New Florida Majority, and others said Broward County resident Augusta Sandino Christian Namphy, was unable to register Monday because the site kept crashing.

The DeSantis administration, it its filing, said Namphy has been registered to vote for three years and has been issued voter identification cards in the past.

A spokesperson for The Advancement Project did not immediately respond to questions about Namphy’s registration.

Florida’s voter registration deadline, 29 days ahead of the election, is one of the earliest in the country.

Lee in a tweet said that the site was only dark for 15 minutes Monday, but a surge of heavy traffic resulted in people getting error messages into the evening. State officials told the court early Wednesday that at its height the site hit with 1 million visits an hour, a stunning number given that Florida currently has roughly 14 million in the voters.

In its filing, the state said about 50,000 Floridians were able to register Tuesday and slightly more than 70,000 registered Monday, the day the portal crashed. The volume was comparable to 2018, when nearly 86,000 voters registered through the website in the two days before that year’s deadline.

“To suggest that the State’s extension was inadequate — without any contrary evidence — is thus empty rhetoric,” wrote attorney Mohammad Jazil, Department of State general counsel Bradley McVay, and James Uthmeier, deputy general counsel for DeSantis.

After a review by law-enforcement officials, Lee said in a statement on Tuesday that there was no sign of outside interference or “malicious activity” that contributed to the site‘s failure.

Democrats viewed the portal’s crash suspiciously, noting that the site has had problems before during periods of peak voter interest. All 13 Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation sent a letter late Tuesday to DeSantis calling on him to extend voter registration by one day, calling the initial extension “welcome but inadequate.”

“Those that logged on to the website on Monday, within the legal deadline for voter registration, should not be silenced because of this breakdown,” the delegation wrote. “Nor should those who seek to vote in November be penalized for failing to become aware of an altruistic, though hastily-crafted remedy consisting of just several added hours of registration availability.

“Without a robust, well-publicized extension remedy, this situation has the superficial appearance of being another example of the voter suppression tactics that Florida has sadly come to be synonymous with in recent years.”

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