As a hurricane threatened Florida, Gov. Rick Scott balked at extending Tuesday’s voter registration deadline for a week as Democrats want, in part because the state has an online system to sign up new voters.
But thousands of Floridians have told some elections supervisors in recent days that the system isn’t working — despite claims from the state that the problems had been fixed and that the effort has been “immensely successful.”
“A mess!” Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher told POLITICO by email.
Florida Democrats are suing Scott’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, in federal court to extend Florida’s voter registration deadline, which is Tuesday, for at least a week due to the approach of Hurricane Michael.
“We have had hundreds of complaints about the system being down or intermittent all weekend. On 10/6/18 we only received 1 online voter registration, which is highly unusual as we usually get hundreds,” Bucher said. “We have lines in our office and have fielded more than 1,500 calls this morning which is an unusually high volume.”
The controversy erupted in Florida as a hurricane brewed nearby and just a month before the election in which Scott faces Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is seeking is third term. Democrats have accused Scott of engaging in voter suppression over the years — a claim he has denied — and at the least have used the voter registration glitches and deadline controversy as a way of ginning up attention to get more voters registered.
A spokeswoman for the state’s elections division, Sarah Revell, said the site “has been immensely successful since it launched last year and has resulted in more than 54,000 new registered voters.”
“Today, the website has experienced an extremely high volume of traffic and it has caused some users to experience issues while others were able to use the site with no problems,” Revell said via email, saying that more than 21,700 people had used the site Tuesday to register to vote or update an application. “The site was never down and the issues were intermittent. All issues have been resolved and the site is operational.”
Bucher, however, said her office experienced problems even after the state said it fixed the problem.
Bucher said she has “sent many emails to Maria Matthews, Div. of Elections Director asking if we should continue to send our citizens to their www.RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov site and no answers. Maria said she was not at her desk as she is answering calls from their hotline.”
Late Monday, Detzner issued a directive to slightly extend voter registration in the 35 counties that have declared a state of emergency and where the elections offices closed due to the storm. When the offices reopen, Detzner’s order said, people will have an extra day to register to vote.
“The Department’s efforts to launch voter registration online have been successful with more than 40,000 people utilizing this new tool to register to vote or update their voter registration online during the past week,” Detzner wrote Monday.
Earlier in the day, at a press conference in Pasco County, Scott told reporters that “right now, everybody can register online. You weren’t able do that before.”
Ever since the 2000 butterfly ballot fiasco, big Florida elections have almost always been close contests and have been marred by controversies that have made the state an occasional laughingstock. The 2016 presidential election — which President Donald Trump at one point falsely claimed was subject to fraud — went off without much trouble. But officials say Russian-linked hackers tried to interfere with Florida election systems, and Sen. Marco Rubio has warned that hackers might try to manipulate voter registration systems to cause chaos on Election Day.
Aaron Krolik, a 40-year-old Delray Beach resident, told POLITICO that he wasn’t able to use the online system Tuesday without lots of help.
“It was just hell. The website was just not working. I emailed and called and had to spend time getting it fixed,” Krolik said. “This is why people don’t participate. It’s a hassle and voting should be a natural right.”
Krolik said he became even more frustrated when he learned that he didn’t need to use the site at all on Tuesday because he was merely updating his change of address, not switching parties or registering to vote for the first time.
Of the state’s 67 elections supervisors, 18 responded to an inquiry from POLITICO. Eleven reported anywhere from one to a handful of complaints or issues with the online voter registration system, six reported no cases and two reported a significant number.
Before Detzner issued his directive, social justice advocate Samuel Sinyangwe posted a video on Twitter Monday to prove the online site wasn’t working. After the state said the problem had been fixed, more people reported problems, leading Sinyangwe to say the state “lied.”
Citrus County’s elections supervisor Susan Gill told POLITICO that the director of the state’s elections division, Maria Matthews, told her that “there is a high volume of traffic on OVR [online voter registration], which is a good thing, but consequently there is a lag between data fields entries such as in the automatic address field lookup.”
The experience of accessing the online system appears to vary from person to person and county to county. But many had at least one complaint.
“I personally logged into the system and successfully completed an OVR application a little after 1:00 today,” said Marion County’s elections supervisor Wesley Wilcox, summing up the experience of seven other supervisors who returned emails to POLITICO. “It was fairly sluggish, but I did complete the process.”
But in Collier County, the elections supervisors office encountered trouble.
“Since around noon, we began receiving an increase of calls regarding individuals having difficulty registering online, particularly when they get to the area to enter the address,” said spokeswoman Trish Robertson. “We ran some tests and are coming up with the same difficulty. Unfortunately, we do not host the website, but we are encouraging our voters to contact our office for alternative voter registration methods to ensure they are registering by the deadline.”
Pasco County’s elections supervisor Brian Corley said “several constituents” reached out to his office due to trouble Monday night. He said the state elections division told him the problem was “intermittent” but was functioning overall. Then, on Tuesday, more complaints came.
“Unsure of how widespread the issues are statewide but we have definitely seen issues in Pasco,” Corley said.