Federal judge extends Virginia voter registration deadline

People wear “Vote” face masks as they wait in a socially distant line at an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia, September 18, 2020. Al Drago | Reuters A federal judge has extended the deadline for registering to vote in Virginia by 48 hours […]

People wear “Vote” face masks as they wait in a socially distant line at an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia, September 18, 2020.

Al Drago | Reuters

A federal judge has extended the deadline for registering to vote in Virginia by 48 hours after the state’s online voter registration system went down because of an accidentally severed cable.

Wednesday’s order by U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr. in Richmond is an effort to make up for several hours of lost time on Tuesday, which had been the last day to register before the November general election.

The shutdown of the state’s website caused “a tremendous harm” to the people who want to register to vote, Gibney said.

Both the voting rights advocates seeking the extension and the Virginia state officials they sued agreed that more time should be granted. The deadline to register to vote is now 11:59 p.m. on Thursday Oct. 15. It includes both online and in-person registration.

Americans are “21 days away from the most important election of our lifetimes, and I want to make sure that every Virginian who wants to vote has the opportunity to do so,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement Tuesday night.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had sought the extension, and said Virginia should make “a significant effort” to tell the public about the change.

“Absent relief, voters who attempted to register to vote through the online portal on October 13, 2020, but were unable through no fault of their own, will be absolutely disenfranchised in the upcoming elections,” the group’s lawsuit said.

Voting advocates said the accident couldn’t have come at a worse time, and lambasted state officials for the failure. Many people wait until the the day of the deadline to register, particularly after being reminded on social media and in the news.

State officials said a 10-gigabit optical fiber circuit was inadvertently cut during a Chesterfield County roadside utilities project. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said the state lacked a backup plan for this particular cable, and the episode shows the need for the state to continue its efforts at creating a secure network.

Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said the circuit was installed this spring to help the state handle increased web demand during the coronavirus pandemic. She said backup circuits aren’t as large as the main circuit, but plans are in place to upgrade them.

Northam, a Democrat, supported the extension, and said it appeared that only the courts could change the state’s voter registration deadline.

This isn’t the first time technical problems affected Virginians’ ability to register to vote under a looming deadline.

In 2016, an unknown number of people were not able to register because of computer glitches amid unprecedented demand spurred by social media reminders. A voter advocacy group, the New Virginia Majority Education Fund, sued for an extension, and a federal judge granted a brief one.

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