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Federal judge hears arguments on extending Florida’s voter registration deadline

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is likely to issue his ruling later Thursday. The state argues that extending the deadline further could cause confusion and undermine voter confidence.
 
Ramiro Saez, left, helps his son Lucas Saez, 22, fill out a voter registration form, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the state's voter registration deadline after heavy traffic crashed the state's online system and potentially prevented thousands of enrolling to cast ballots in next month's presidential election. Saez attempted to register to vote six times the night before without any luck.
Ramiro Saez, left, helps his son Lucas Saez, 22, fill out a voter registration form, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the state's voter registration deadline after heavy traffic crashed the state's online system and potentially prevented thousands of enrolling to cast ballots in next month's presidential election. Saez attempted to register to vote six times the night before without any luck. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020|Updated Oct. 8, 2020

A federal judge is expected to rule later today on whether Florida should further extend its voter registration deadline following repeated outages to the state’s online portal on Monday night, the last day to sign up to vote in the Nov. 3 election.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker held an expedited hearing Thursday on a lawsuit from several voter registration groups, including Demos, New Florida Majority, The Advancement Project National Office and others that are urging the state to extend the deadline by at least two days.

The groups have said that some eligible voters were not able to register because of the website crashes.

Stuart Naifeh, an attorney for Demos, said the state’s decision to briefly reopen the voter registration deadline for a few hours Tuesday was not a sufficient cure for the website problems, noting that many Floridians were at work during the span when the state announced the extended deadline.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee announced the deadline extension midday Tuesday. It lapsed a few hours later at 7 p.m. In addition, state officials have said, anyone who registered Tuesday before the noon extension would be eligible to vote in the general election.

The state argued that extending the deadline further could cause confusion and undermine voter confidence in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. It said county elections officials needed time to prepare for the election, and suggested that reopening the voter registration deadline again could mean that Floridians who registered during that later time may have to cast provisional ballots if counties can’t update their voter rolls in time.

During Thursday’s hearing, Walker noted that Florida’s elections system is already being stretched thin during this presidential election year amid a pandemic. He questioned whether potentially “dumping tens of thousands of provisional ballots” into the system would be a further drain and challenge.

“Historically Florida hasn’t managed to count the votes properly where there isn’t a pandemic,” he noted.

In a court filing on Wednesday evening, the state said more than 70,000 Floridians submitted material using the online voter registration website on Monday and another 50,000 did so on Tuesday while the deadline was reopened.

Related: Florida estimates mroe than 40,000 people registered to vote during extended deadline

A declaration by Deputy Chief Information Officer Scott Maynor said that the state saw a “significant and perceptible loss of traffic" on the online voter registration system beginning at 4:38 p.m. Monday.

“Submissions dropped significantly from almost 8,000 submissions an hour to 949 submissions,” Maynor wrote. “By around 4:58 p.m., the pipelines within the system were completely saturated.”

Walker used some of Maynor’s data to do some rough math comparing the number of registrations in the last days of registration in 2020 compared to 2018. He said the numbers would suggest that, although the state’s registration deadline extension helped, “far fewer people registered than one would have expected based on the numbers.”

Walker asked Mohammad Jazil, an attorney with the Hopping Green & Sams law firm who is representing Lee, to explain how the website problems weren’t disenfranchisement.

Jazil noted that Floridians had other avenues to register aside from the online portal and said voters had missed the deadline.

“We keep focusing on the voter. The voters didn’t sabotage the Secretary of State’s website,” Walker said. “It failed. It failed the people of Florida.”

Walker clearly was weighing the potential harm to voters and the effects to the election process during Thursday’s hearing. Several mentions were made to the “Purcell Principle”, which warns the courts to tread lightly when changing rules close to an election because doing so could cause voter confusion and create problems for election administration.

Walker on Thursday morning also dismissed Gov. Ron DeSantis from the lawsuit amid a complex discussion about who has legal authority to extend the voter registration deadline. DeSantis appointed Lee, who technically oversees the elections website.

Earlier, one of the original plaintiffs was removed from the case after the state found that the Broward County resident had been registered to vote for years.

It is unclear how Walker will rule and whether either party may appeal the ruling. Walker took time Thursday to tell those listening in on the telephone conference not to read too much into his questions or the intensity with which he asked them. “The fact that I ask tough questions doesn’t necessarily mean what will happen in a case,” he said at one point.

Florida’s chief information officer said Wednesday that misconfigured computer servers — not a cyberattack — were to blame for the crash of the state’s voter registration system.

James Grant said the system began working as expected after technicians reconfigured existing servers to expand the network’s capacity and give the system a “whole lot more horsepower.”

Related: Florida's elections website failed because of servers, not cyberattack, says IT official

The Florida Department of State has previously said it saw a surge of traffic to the website on Monday, with about 1.1 million visits per hour at the time of its technical problems. There’s been some speculation that a tweet callout from Florida-born pop superstar Ariana Grande for people to register to vote may have contributed to a spike in traffic on the site Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide beginning Sunday, Oct. 11.

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HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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