Judge Extends Virginia Voter Registration After Service Outage

Voters line up to cast ballots in Henrico County, Va., on Sept. 18, 2020, the first day of the state’s 45-day early voting period. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A federal judge extended Virginia’s voter registration deadline by two days Wednesday morning following an outage caused by a severed cable Tuesday, the final scheduled day to register ahead of the 2020 general election.

The speedy hearing featured U.S. District Judge John Gibney running through the test required to grant such an order – finding the rights of the plaintiffs in the case, New Virginia Majority and the Virginia Chapter of the League of Women Voters, were violated and the state would not be harmed by extending the deadline. 

“What has happened has happened and there will be irreparable harm because apparently many people were trying to register at the last minute,” Gibney, a Barack Obama appointee, said during the virtual hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes. “I’ll write this order so we can get this process going.” 

Voter registration, both online and in person, will now be extended through 11:59 p.m. Thursday. Gibney ruled from the bench before issuing a written order Wednesday morning.  

The dispute involved an hours-long outage to Virginia’s online voter registration portal. The mishap stemmed from an overnight utility project that cut a cable linking the state’s tech center to the web. Virginians were unable to register as new voters or update or check their registration status early Tuesday. The service was up and running by late afternoon, but the voting rights groups claimed it hindered their ability to register voters.

Attorney Thomas Connally III with Hogan Lovells represented the voter groups in the dispute. Heather Hays Lockerman in Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office represented the Virginia Department of Elections and elections board members. Neither spoke during the hearing except to affirm Gibney’s order. 

Herring submitted a consent decree late Tuesday night that formed the basis of the deal. A statement released with the filing said the attorney general, a Democrat, was “dedicated to ensuring that Virginia’s voter registration deadline is extended” to make up for the time that was lost.  

Those extra two days could be important. While registration for specific days is unavailable, National Voter Registration Act records show the state’s online tool is among the most frequently used methods of registering new voters or updating voter information. July  saw about 94,000 uses of the online tool while August, the most recent month with available data, saw 160,000 uses. For comparison, November 2016 saw about 22,000 uses of the tool.

Changes made to state voting laws by state Democrats, who won control of the statehouse last year, have put Virginia front and center with early and expanded access to voting. Early voting opened mid-September and nearly 1 million ballots have already been cast while another 600,000 mail-in absentee ballots are waiting to be returned, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

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