Since the last presidential election, Virginia has rolled out a system that allows citizens to register to vote and update their registrations online. Four years ago, the state had an entirely paper-based system.
The shift to online was hailed as a more modern and efficient approach, but registrars have complained in recent months about recurring glitches and severe slowdowns. Problems resurfaced Sunday, after Facebook and Google alerted Virginians to the state’s looming registration deadline. The Department of Elections online voter registration system experienced an unprecedented activity level that caused it to slow down and sometimes be completely unresponsive.
Virginia, which has 5.5 million voters on its rolls, has seen last-minute registration spikes in other presidential years. Just under 430,000 Virginians registered in October 2012. While results for this month are not known yet, the spike seems even sharper this time around amid a bitterly contested race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. More than 490,000 Virginians registered in September, compared with 260,000 in September 2012.
The state launched its online voter registration system in 2013. Until this year, the largest number of registrations submitted in a single day was about 2,200. That single-day online registration record has been broken three times this year in response to social-media campaigns urging Virginians to register: 8,000 signed up one day in February, ahead of the deadline to register for the primary; 17,000 on Sept. 23, ahead of National Voter Registration Day; 21,000 managed to do so on Monday, despite the day’s technical issues.
The system, strained in recent weeks by high volume, simply couldn't handle traffic surges brought on Monday by last-minute registrations and people looking to check their registration status or change the address on their voter card.
Local registrars were still available to accept registrations in person and anything postmarked Monday will count.
At a hearing last week, General Assembly members and city and county registrars raised concerns about the spotty performance of VERIS, the computer system used to register voters and process absentee ballots. Registrars from a number of localities told legislators the system was taking several minutes to process jobs that should only take seconds. Legislators were concerned the system eventually would crash.
The state Department of Elections asked state budget writers for funding to upgrade it's IT structure earlier this year, but did not receive it. It's annual budget is about $10 million, with about $7 million of that coming from federal grants that expire in coming years.
A civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday night against Virginia election officials. The suit argues that would-be voters who could not access the system Monday were deprived of their constitutional right to vote because Virginia officials failed to provide a working system. The suit asks for a court injunction ordering the Virginia Department of Elections and the State Board of Elections to extend the registration deadline by at least three full days.
It’s not clear how many people may have been unable to access the system. The ACLU of Virginia noted that state law makes accommodations for people standing in line when registration closes, and argued that similar accommodations should be made for those who tried to register online. The ACLU said the state is legally required to have functional registration systems in place.
Virginia's voter registration deadline is set out in state law, so neither the Virginia Board of Elections nor Governor McAuliffe can simply extend it.
A Federal judge on Thursday extended the deadline for Virginia citizens to register to vote or update their voter registration through Friday, October 21. As of the 11:59pm deadline for online registration, 27,l 952 voter registration applications has been submitted since the court order.
The Department has made important functionality improvements to the statewide voter registration system, VERIS, to help it keep up with the heavy demand from voters. It added additional memory capacity to the primary server, added a secondary database server for information such as polling locations to ease the demand on VERIS, made other performance improvements, and added a custom error page that provided voters information on other ways to register or update their records.
Virginians may check their voter registration status, find their polling location, check what is on their ballot, and apply for an absentee ballot on the Department’s Citizen Portal at vote.virginia.gov. Allow several days after submitting a registration application for the status to appear on the portal.
If you have any questions, comments or concerns that I or my Aide, Jenna, can help assist with in any way, please do not hesitate to call me (434) 821-5929 or email at Delmfariss@house.virginia.gov. You can also keep up with me on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DelegateMattFariss.