A construction site accident caused the damage. Now officials search for a solution.
RICHMOND-It was an accident. That’s what the Virginia Information Technology Agency said on Tuesday. A cut cable shut down online voter registration across Virginia, as well as systems at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Virginia Employment Commission and other statewide agencies.
“Technicians learned that a Verizon fiber had been inadvertently struck as part of activities related to a Chesterfield County roadside utilities project,” VITA officials said in a statement. The project they’re referring to was located off Route 10 in Chester, near the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center. “VITA, Verizon and Chesterfield County are working diligently to ensure that fiber repairs are made and connections are restored as soon as possible.”
The incident happened before 9 am and caused problems across the Commonwealth. Keyanna Conner, Virginia’s Secretary of Administration, explained the cut occurred on the Commonwealth’s 10 gigabyte circuit just installed this spring. Due to COVID-19 and a major shift to remote work, state officials set up the larger circuit to handle increased broadband needs. Unfortunately the backup can’t handle the same workload.
“While we do have backup circuits, those circuits are not as large,” Conner said. “We have shifted some of that workload, but because of the high demand, it is causing a lot of our web applications to slow.”
Conner said the state has a plan in place to upgrade those backups and the main circuit, but there is no timetable for when that might happen. She expects a temporary solution will be in place by 4 pm, in order to bring all systems back to 100%. A permanent solution to the cut cable will take a bit longer. According to the Board of Elections, the registration portal went active again by 3:30 pm.
Switching to paper plans
Today marks the deadline for voter registration and people who waited until the last day suddenly found themselves unable to register online, due to the cut line. That didn’t stop local registrars from making it work, however.
Kimberly Cloud, Carroll County general registrar and director of elections, had a busy day in the office, despite the technological issues.
“It has impacted us for those folks that are not registered. We’re not able to enter them into the system,” Cloud said. “We will be able to do so because they met the deadline. We will be able to do so as soon as the system is up and running.”
The cut cable didn’t stop voters eager to cast their ballots in Carroll County.
“Our absentee voting is proceeding along greatly. We’re very busy with that today,” Cloud said. “We have a way to confirm that you haven’t voted in the past for this election, so that’s going great.”
There had been a concern about anyone who submitted a ballot before the cut occurred, questioning if those votes registered in the system. Cloud said not to worry, every vote counted.
“They do not need to come back and vote again,” Cloud said.
Christine Gibbons, Lynchburg director of elections and general registrar, said she’d never heard of an outage like the one on Tuesday morning happening before.
“What we’ve been doing is we’ve been encouraging voters if they are concerned, and they can’t double check that they do have their voter registration, that they can come in and fill out a voter registration application here in person,” Gibbons said. “They have until 5 o’clock to do so.”
Just because the system went down didn’t mean Gibbons closed the Lynchburg Registrar’s Office. Instead, she and her team proceeded with the election the old fashioned way.
“We are continuing to do early voting also today,” Gibbons said. “[We] have paper poll books. [We] are checking the people through the paper poll books.”
Without the technological aids, the process went a little slower, but people still turned out, patient and ready to vote.
“It’s taking a little bit longer,” Gibbons said. “The line is longer. It’s a continuous line, but we are getting people through.”
Will people get an extra day to register?
The biggest question facing Gov. Ralph Northam at his 2 pm press conference involved the registration deadline. As per the Virginia Code, residents have until 11:59pm on Oct. 13 to register to vote. Northam and his counsel, Rita Davis, both explained he can’t change the deadline through an executive order. That’s because it’s part of the Code.
“We have been exploring all of our options,” Northam said. “I do not have the authority to change it. That is up to the courts and I would support a court-ordered extension.”
As of 2:30 pm, no lawsuits or petitions had been filed relating to this case. Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement, but simply asked residents to wait and see.
“I share Virginians’ deep concerns about the registration system outage,” Herring said. “I’ve always taken action to ensure you can safely cast your ballot in-person or by mail and to ensure your vote will count, and we are approaching this situation in exactly the same way. Stay tuned.”