October 6, 2020 | website | No Comments
MIAMI — Florida’s voter registration website crashed on Monday before the state’s midnight deadline, raising questions about whether the state was prepared for an enormous last-minute influx of voters.
The registration site was experiencing more than a million requests per hour, said state officials, who announced that the deadline for new voter registrations would be extended by a day, through 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said the trouble began at about 5 p.m. on Monday. “It was an inordinate amount of traffic” for about seven hours until midnight, he said. “If 500,000 people descend at the same time, it creates a bottleneck.”
“You can have the best site in the world,” he added. “Sometimes there’s hiccups on it.”
The website gave users error messages and caused delays, prompting some state officials and cybersecurity experts to question whether the website had been targeted by hackers.
Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, a DeSantis appointee who is the state’s top elections official, alluded to a possible outside attack in a statement on Tuesday.
“We’re exploring all options to ensure that all eligible registrants have the ability to register to vote and will work with our state and federal law-enforcement partners to ensure this was not a deliberate act against the voting process,” she said.
Some cybersecurity analysts said the large influx of requests to the website could have been the result of a denial-of-service attack, in which hackers clog a site with traffic requests until it collapses under the load.
Such a large volume of traffic “could certainly indicate that the election infrastructure was the subject of a DDoS attack,” said Brett Callow, a threat analyst at Emsisoft, using the shorthand for a distributed denial-of-service attack.
Other cybersecurity experts advised caution, noting that a typical denial-of-service attack often generates hundreds of millions of hits per second. If this was a denial-of-service attack, it was a small one, they said.
More likely, these experts said, the incident appeared to be attributable to an information technology staff that was ill-prepared to handle the last-minute flood of traffic from legitimate voter registrations on Monday and then a second wave from journalists and digital rubber-neckers looking into the reported issues.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the department was not investigating and directed questions back to the Department of State.
Ms. Lee said the website received “an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour” late on Monday.
In announcing an extension of Monday’s voter registration deadline, she said that any applications received on Tuesday — either online, in person at elections’ supervisors, tax collections and motor vehicles offices, or postmarked by Tuesday — would be accepted. The offices would stay open until 7 p.m., Mr. DeSantis said in a news conference.
“If you are NOT registering to vote, we ask that you do your part for your fellow Floridians and please do not try to access RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov during this time and drive up traffic to the site,” Ms. Lee said.
She first acknowledged slowdowns with the website on Monday evening. “Due to high volume, for about 15 minutes, some users experienced delays while trying to register,” Ms. Lee wrote on Twitter. “We have increased capacity.”
On Monday night, as the technical problems continued, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter demanding that the deadline be extended until midnight on Tuesday.
“Otherwise, we may be forced to consider other legal remedies,” the groups wrote.
Kira Romero-Craft, a Central Florida lawyer, said that several groups representing voters filed suit on Tuesday on behalf of voter organizations and a person who tried to register and was unable to after repeated attempts.
“They are so not transparent about how they operate the system,” Ms. Romero-Craft said. “They said they were putting in more capacity to sustain increased usage, but they won’t provide more numbers. We went on faith that was being done. The system crashed all day.”
She said the state’s extension until 7 p.m. Tuesday was not good enough, because it would be difficult to reach voters to let them know they must try again, and it was unclear whether even then the system would be stable.
Voting rights activists and cybersecurity experts are on high alert in Florida after the state’s voting apparatus was marred by a series of cyberattacks in the 2016 election.
In 2016, Russian hackers breached VR Systems, a Florida-based company that provides registration systems and the software used to check voters in at the polls.
And last year — three years after the fact — state officials confirmed that election-related servers in at least two counties were also breached by Russian hackers before the 2016 election. Officials claim the incidents did not affect the final vote.
Then last November, officials in Palm Beach County confirmed that their election office was hit by a ransomware attack in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election.
One month before the November election, officials at the Department of Homeland Security have said they have made defending against such attacks a priority at the agency.
Monday’s issues led Democrats to accuse the state, which also has a Republican-controlled Legislature, of voter suppression.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County, blamed what she called the “utter incompetence” of Mr. DeSantis, whose administration faced a crisis this year with the collapse of its online unemployment benefits system amid the pandemic.
“This particular blunder intimates a continuing pattern of voter suppression that the governor has become notorious for,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said. “The governor must immediately extend the registration deadline to make up for all the voters he’s disenfranchised.”