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Florida judge says voter registration site outage failed its citizens

The voter registration site was down for seven hours. An estimated 21,722 people could have been disenfranchised because of the outage.

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Florida's voter registration website received 1.1 million requests an hour on Monday night, causing an outage.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

After a seven-hour outage of Florida's voter registration website Monday, voters in the state were given another chance to register Tuesday. On Friday, a judge ruled against a lawsuit that sought to further extend registration, but he also acknowledged that tens of thousands of potential voters were likely disenfranchised because of the crash.

Florida's voter registration website went down starting around 5 p.m. ET Monday, and the outage remained an issue past the midnight deadline.

"It's working now, but if 500,000 people descend at the same time, I mean, it creates a bottleneck," Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Tuesday. "It obviously wasn't smooth because you had so much traffic. Hopefully it'll be fine."

The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said there are no signs that a cyberattack caused the outage. 

"At this point, there is no indication of malicious activity causing the outage," an agency spokesperson said Tuesday. "We will continue to monitor the situation and support Florida and other states in protecting the 2020 election."

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince had said Monday night there were no indications of a cyberattack against Florida's voter registration website. Cloudflare, a cybersecurity company, protects Florida's voter registration website from distributed denial of service attacks.

Political activist groups in Florida sued the state to extend the deadline beyond the seven extra hours, for an additional two days. 

The lawsuit argued that Florida's election officials should have anticipated a spike in traffic on the voter registration deadline date because it experienced similar outages in 2018 and during the August primary. 

"Florida is aware that there is increased traffic on book closing days, but the State has not taken steps to ensure that the site has the necessary capacity to accommodate the increased demand," according to the suit. 

On Friday, a judge ruled against the lawsuit, noting that Florida's election officials did extend the deadline by seven hours. About 50,000 people registered to vote during that time, according to court documents. In the order, Chief US District Judge Mark E. Walker said Florida's interest in preventing election chaos "outweighs the substantial burden imposed on the right to vote." 

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Even while denying the 48-hour extension, the judge criticized Florida's election officials for the outage. Walker estimated that about 21,722 voters were potentially disenfranchised from voting, even with the seven-hour extension. 

"This case is about how a state failed its citizens. In this case, potential voters attempted to perform their civic duty, to exercise their fundamental right, only to be thwarted, once again, by a state that seemingly is never prepared for an election," Walker said. "This case is about failure on the part of a civil servant, whose responsibility is to run an election system, that will cost thousands of potential voters their fundamental right to vote in the upcoming election."

Monday's outage wasn't the first time technical difficulties have affected Florida residents. The voter registration website was taken offline in 2019 for maintenance days before National Voter Registration Day. The state's residents have also complained about Florida's unemployment website experiencing outages in April. 

Florida is considered a crucial swing state for the 2020 US presidential election. During the 2016 election it experienced cyberattacks affecting voter registration databases in two counties. 

The state's election officials are still investigating what caused Monday's outage and said the site received an "extremely high volume of traffic."

RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov "was accessed by an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour" on Monday, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said in a statement.

That rate of traffic is nearly five times the voter registration website's normal amount of traffic all year. About 213,000 Florida residents so far have registered online in 2020, according to Politico

As of Aug. 31, Florida had 14.1 million registered voters in the state, according to public records. About 32% of those newly registered voters came from the online portal. That compares with 8.5% of voters who registered online in 2019 and 17% in 2018. 

In September, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that cyberattacks on election infrastructure can affect access to voting information but wouldn't prevent a voter from casting a ballot.