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Florida Extends Registration Deadline After Voting Website Crashes

MIAMI — Florida’s voter registration website crashed on Monday before the state’s midnight deadline, raising questions about whether the state was prepared for an enormous last-minute influx of voters.

The registration site was experiencing more than a million requests per hour, said state officials, who announced that the deadline for new voter registrations would be extended through 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said the trouble began at about 5 p.m. Monday. “It was an inordinate amount of traffic” for about seven hours until midnight, he said. “If 500,000 people descend at the same time, it creates a bottleneck.”

“You can have the best site in the world,” he added. “Sometimes there’s hiccups on it.”

Securing voting systems has been a top priority in an election year in which President Trump has raised concerns, unfounded so far, about vote rigging. Though Monday’s problems occurred not in the state’s vote-counting networks, but on its separate registration website, security experts worry that even routine technological glitches could undermine confidence in the election results, especially in a battleground state like Florida that frequently sees elections decided by a few thousand votes.

Republicans in Florida had boasted before Monday’s website crash that they had far outpaced Democrats in registering new voters, as Democrats chose to keep canvassers mostly at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. With Democratic volunteers only recently venturing outside, Democratic activists worried that Monday’s problems could disproportionately affect that population of would-be voters.

As last-minute voters raced to beat Monday’s deadline, they were met with error messages, prompting some state officials and cybersecurity experts to question whether the website had been targeted by hackers.

Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, a DeSantis appointee who is the state’s top elections official, alluded to a possible outside attack in a statement on Tuesday.

“We’re exploring all options to ensure that all eligible registrants have the ability to register to vote and will work with our state and federal law-enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process,” she said.

Some cybersecurity analysts said the large influx of requests to the website could have been the result of a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS, in which hackers clog a site with traffic requests until it collapses under the load.

Such a large volume of traffic “could certainly indicate that the election infrastructure was the subject of a DDoS attack,” said Brett Callow, a threat analyst at Emsisoft.

Other cybersecurity experts advised caution, noting that a typical denial-of-service attack generates hundreds of millions of hits per second. If this was a denial-of-service attack, it was a small one, they said.

More likely, these experts said, the incident appeared to be attributable to an information technology staff that was ill-prepared to handle the last-minute flood of traffic from legitimate voter registrations on Monday and then a second wave from journalists and digital rubberneckers looking into the reported issues.

A similar crash happened on the last day to register ahead of the midterm elections in 2018, and on National Voter Registration Day last month.

“Whether this was a denial-of-service attack or last-minute voters, it should come as no surprise that there are going to be high volumes of people trying to access voter registration systems the last day before the deadline,” said Susan Greenhalgh, a senior adviser on election security to Free Speech for People, a nonpartisan public interest group. “We should expect this traffic and ensure we are protected from some sort of malicious attack.”

Ms. Lee said the website received “an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour” late on Monday. For context, less than 10 million Floridians voted in the 2016 election.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the department was not investigating Monday’s technical problems and directed questions back to the Department of State.

In announcing an extension of Monday’s voter registration deadline, Ms. Lee said that any applications postmarked by Tuesday or received on Tuesday — either online or in person at elections’ supervisors, tax collections and motor vehicles offices — would be accepted. The offices would stay open until 7 p.m., Mr. DeSantis said in a news conference.

Ms. Lee first acknowledged slowdowns with the website on Monday evening. “Due to high volume, for about 15 minutes, some users experienced delays while trying to register,” Ms. Lee wrote on Twitter. “We have increased capacity.”

As the technical problems continued Monday night, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter demanding that the deadline be extended until midnight on Tuesday.

Kira Romero-Craft, a lawyer for the immigrant rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said several groups representing voters filed suit on Tuesday on behalf of voter organizations and a person who tried to register and was unable to after repeated attempts. Hours later, the lawyers filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order, arguing that the extension until 7 p.m. Tuesday was not long enough.

The state, she said, was not transparent about its capacity to sustain increased traffic.

“The system crashed all day,” she said.

She said more time was needed to collect registrations because it would be difficult to reach voters to let them know they must try again, and it was unclear whether the system would be stable.

Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the failure occurred at a crucial time because many people wait until the deadline to register.

She estimated that tens of thousands of Floridians might have been affected and would benefit from a longer deadline extension. When her organization sued Virginia under similar circumstances in 2017 and secured a 36-hour registration extension, 25,000 people signed up to vote, she said.

Extending the deadline until 7 p.m. Tuesday “just doesn’t provide enough time for the public to receive fair notice and opportunity,” Ms. Clarke added.

Voting rights activists and cybersecurity experts are on high alert in Florida after the state’s voting apparatus was marred by a series of cyberattacks before the 2016 election.

In 2016, Russian hackers breached VR Systems, a Florida-based company that provides registration systems and the software used to check voters in at the polls. Election-related servers in at least two counties were also breached by Russian hackers before the 2016 election, state officials confirmed last year, months before Palm Beach County said its election office had been hit by a ransomware attack at a similar time. State officials claimed that the incidents did not affect the final vote but refused to offer detailed information on what happened.

The problems on Monday led Democrats to accuse the state, which also has a Republican-controlled Legislature, of voter suppression. Democrats have battled Republicans in the state on numerous voter rights issues in recent years, including over access to early voting sites and restrictions for former felons to become eligible to vote.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County, blamed what she called the “utter incompetence” of Mr. DeSantis, whose administration faced a crisis this year with the collapse of its online unemployment benefits system amid the pandemic.

“This particular blunder intimates a continuing pattern of voter suppression that the governor has become notorious for,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said.

Aidil Oscariz, a lawyer in Miami who has been working with people with felony convictions to obtain their right to vote, said she received phone calls from dozens of people on Monday who were shut out of the website.

“Throughout the day, people were sending me pictures and videos of the glitches,” she said. “Some people spent over three hours on it.”

She said drop-down menus did not work and the page frequently reset or froze, no matter how many devices they tried to use.

Eliese Hunt, a 29-year-old construction worker in Sarasota, said the website kept locking up as he spent nearly an hour trying to register on Monday. Mr. Hunt has a felony conviction but voter organizations helped him pay off his fines. This would have been his first time registering to vote.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this is my time to vote!’” Mr. Hunt said. “I went on the website, but after several attempts, it wouldn’t let me through.”

Mr. Hunt tried again on Tuesday, but the site said he had to come in and fill out a paper registration in person.

“The thing is, I’m not going to let that stop me,” Mr. Hunt said. “I’m going to keep pushing so I could know how it feels to vote.”

Patricia Mazzei reported from Miami, Nicole Perlroth from San Francisco, and Frances Robles from Key West, Fla.

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