ALEXANDRIA — Virginians who couldn’t register to vote because a state website crashed were given one more chance to sign up after a federal judge on Thursday ordered the state to reopen the voter registration period until 11:59 p.m. Friday.
The court ruling, welcomed by Democrats and Republicans, was brought about by a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a civil rights group arguing that potentially thousands of Virginians had been affected by major problems with the state’s online voter registration system ahead of Monday’s registration deadline.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said earlier this week that he couldn’t extend the deadline himself because it’s fixed in state law. The office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring did not contest the lawsuit.
During a brief hearing in Alexandria, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton refused to approve a longer extension favored by state officials and the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the group that brought the case. Hilton was asked to extend the registration period until midnight Monday. The judge agreed accommodations should be made to fix the problem but said a five-day extension seemed needlessly long.
“I don’t think it should be used to extend the period of time beyond what the legislature provided here just for the sake of extending something,” Hilton said.
The Attorney General’s Office and a lawyer for the plaintiffs said a longer extension would reduce the chances of another website crash and additional court proceedings.
“The thinking is we’ll provide ample time so it will spread the burden on the network over the weekend and into Monday,” said John A. Freedman, an attorney with law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, which helped bring the case.
“If the system crashes again, we’ll have to deal with it,” Hilton said.
Virginia Department of Elections officials said the website problems were caused by an unprecedented traffic surge and online voting promotions by Facebook and Google. An unknown number of people who tried to register online ahead of Monday’s deadline were met by a “File not found” error message.
In a statement, McAuliffe, who has focused extensively this year on expanding voting rights for felons, said the state will “fully comply” with the order by reopening voter registration online, in person and by mail.
“The right to vote is one of the most sacred tenets of our democracy, and we should do everything we can to make it accessible to as many people as possible,” McAuliffe said. “I am pleased that we are able to offer the individuals who were unable to register another opportunity to make their voices heard, and we are working hard to ensure that this process, as well as the remainder of this election cycle, is smooth and easy for everyone who participates.”
In the event of further “unexpected technology issues,” would-be voters should contact the Department of Elections so the agency can follow up to ensure everyone makes it through the process, McAuliffe said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were two voter registration groups — New Virginia Majority Education Fund and Virginia Civic Engagement Table — and a Charlottesville couple who tried to register several times Sunday and Monday without success.
“Today’s order means dedicated Virginians who were unable to register on Monday through no fault of their own will have a voice in this election,” Julie Emery, executive director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, said in a news release praising the decision.
In a statement, House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said Republican leaders accept the court’s order but added, “The entire episode was unfortunate, predictable and avoidable.”
“Local registrars attempted to warn the McAuliffe administration this was going to happen, and the General Assembly’s Privileges and Elections Committees attempted to bring these issues to light at a joint hearing last week,” Howell said. “In both cases the Department of Elections brushed aside legitimate concerns instead of taking the prompt action that was needed.”
Howell called on McAuliffe to consider a leadership shake-up at the elections agency and said the legislature should order a review when it reconvenes next year.