WASHINGTON — A federal judge won't reopen voter registration in Florida after the state's website crashed on the final day, but he used his order on Friday to eviscerate state officials for how they had handled the situation.
"This case is about how a state failed its citizens," US District Judge Mark Walker wrote.
Hours before registration was set to end in Florida at midnight on Oct. 5, the website crashed. Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee blamed "unprecedented" traffic, saying they recorded 1.1 million access requests per hour that night. Shortly after noon the next day, Lee announced that they had extended the deadline to 7 p.m. Voting rights groups immediately sued in federal court to reopen registration in Florida, a major battleground in this year's presidential election.
Walker on Friday denied the request for an injunction to extend the registration period, writing that Florida's lawyers had convinced him that the state's handling of the election was already so problematic that it couldn't handle more uncertainty. He cited affidavits that the state filed in court that "paint a disturbing picture of overworked elections staff, incomplete voter rolls, and election-day mayhem."
"This is an incredibly close call, but Florida’s interest in preventing chaos in its already precarious — and perennially chaotic — election outweighs the substantial burden imposed on the right to vote," the judge wrote.
He criticized the state for only giving residents until 7 p.m. on Oct. 6, instead of midnight, to register once the website was back online, writing that Floridians were expected not only to become aware of the extension, but also to act on it, during daytime hours when they were likely busy with work, school, and family.
"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 wrote. "To these potential voters, the state’s answer for its own failures can only be characterized as 'so sad, too bad.'"
According to information that Florida submitted to the court, approximately 50,000 people registered online to vote during the extra hours on Oct. 6. The judge noted that based on historical data about spikes in voter registration on the final day during previous election cycles, potentially tens of thousands of Florida residents weren't able to register this year. That was "certainly a substantial burden limiting the right to vote," Walker wrote.
However, the judge also wrote that he was aware that reopening registration could confuse voters even more and concluded that "exasperating the already extraordinary burdens the state’s supervisors of elections face in the midst of a pandemic" wasn't in the public's interest.
"Unfortunately for these potential voters, this Court cannot remedy what the state broke under these circumstances," Walker wrote. "In so ruling, this Court notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly—a task simpler than rocket science."
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of State did not immediately return a request for comment. The coalition of voting rights groups that sued released a statement calling the situation "another episode in Florida’s long history of voter suppression."
"We are incredibly disappointed that Floridians across the state were disenfranchised due to the failure of the state’s online voter registration system," the groups said. "The state of Florida once again violated its duty to ensure all eligible Floridians can participate in free, fair and safe elections. Thousands of eligible residents will not be able to participate in the November election."