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Federal judge weighs Florida's voter registration deadline

A roll of "I Voted!" stickers are shown, 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. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
A roll of "I Voted!" stickers are shown, 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. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge pointedly asked why the state of Florida on Thursday could not further extend its voter registration period after a computer meltdown earlier in the week might have prevented thousands of potential voters from taking part in November’s presidential election.

But U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Walker also wondered whether extending the deadline would be an undue burden on election officials across Florida, who are already under pressure to hold voting amid the coronavirus pandemic and the intense scrutiny that comes with the states' status as a national battleground.

Walker said he would issue a ruling quickly, perhaps just hours after hearing arguments from lawyers representing Florida's Secretary of State and voter advocacy groups who say thousands of Floridians could be disenfranchised when state elections servers failed after being overwhelmed by unprecedented traffic on Monday, the last day to register to vote.

After consulting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee allowed additional registrations for seven hours on Tuesday.

Data filed by the state indicates that 50,000 people registered during the extended time period. Based on previous trends, the judge noted, perhaps more than 20,000 additional people might have also registered to vote, if they had been able to access the system.

Walker took umbrage at a state lawyer’s argument that other venues were available to register to vote, including in-person at an elections office or by mail.

“Are you seriously taking the position that if it shut down for hours, and 50,000 or 60,000 people don’t get to register, that’s a minor thing? For the life of me, I don’t understand that argument,” Walker said.

“You all knew people were using this website based on past years. You knew thousands of people were using it, thousands of Floridians ... actual U.S. citizens, and it failed for hours,” he said.

With Florida’s 29 electoral votes at stake, the case has national implications.

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 as the deadline approached for enrolling to cast ballots in next month’s presidential election.

Voting rights groups argued that the additional time was inadequate and sued the state to reopen the registration period for an additional two days, which would give more time for Floridians to be notified of the extension and allow them to register through the state's electronic portal.

The state countered that extending voter registration again would create confusion, arguing that a further extension could also interfere with county elections offices around the state as they process vote-by-mail ballots and administer early voting.

Walker pushed voting rights groups to justify why a two-day extension was necessary, when the online portal was only down for part of a day.

The groups include Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and others.

At the end of the hearing, Walker acknowledged that time was of the essence and said he would decide as quickly as he could and possibly issue a ruling Thursday afternoon.

During his questioning, Walker noted the high interest in the November election.

According to data submitted by Florida officials, there were about 70,100 people who successfully accessed the portal on Monday — the bulk of them able to get through before the system slowed to a crawl at about 5 p.m.

In the last seven hours of Monday, only about 8,100 people successfully registered to vote, requested new voter registration cards or made changes to their existing voter information.

Walker suggested that there could have been far more people who were trying to register.

Indeed, state officials said there were about 49,000 people trying to access the system at the peak of the slowdown.