Voter access problems in Florida’s 2018 election started long before the polls opened, a new cache of documents obtained by American Oversight from Florida’s Department of State shows.
The documents show pages upon pages of prospective-voter complaints about apparent technology and user interface errors with Florida’s Online Voter Registration (OVR) system, registertovoteflorida.gov, as well as concerns from local county election supervisors about the tool.
While the records detail the chaos of a past election cycle, reports of OVR technical glitches earlier this year suggests observers should keep a keen eye on the system as the deadline for the general election registration looms this coming Monday, Oct. 5.
Many of the issues in 2018 seemed to stem from problems verifying addresses, leaving some Florida residents frustrated and potentially disenfranchised. In some cases, those attempting to register or update their information through the state’s primary portal resorted to all caps in their tech-support pleas.
“PLEASE FIX THIS,” one implored on July 24, 2018. “THIS IS RIDICULOUS,” they wrote, adding a line break after each word for emphasis.
Even election officials begged for help. Kaiti Lenhart, the Flagler County supervisor of elections, emailed technical support on July 18, writing that it took her “several attempts to successfully move through the process of OVR,” despite her familiarity with the tool.
“Unfortunately, the error message is not descriptive,” she wrote, including a snippet of a graphic that merely read: “We are unable to process your request.”
She was ultimately able to get through, but noted in the email exchange that the website included unclear or incorrect instructions about what information was needed to get the tool to work.
American Oversight submitted a public records request on Sept. 25, 2019, for information about the operational status of Florida’s OVR system in the run-up to the 2018 voter-registration deadlines for the primary and general elections.
The documents produced by the Florida Department of State in response showed Lenhart and other county-level officials having raised alarm bells in July 2018, in the weeks before the registration deadline for voting in that year’s primary.
On July 19, Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill complained to a number of state officials that the site was “frustrating and aggravating our voters and prospective voters,” describing apparent authentication issues with the site that resulted in an error message.
“I have personally tried to use the OVR, once on the office computer and once on my personal tablet. I received the same error message,” Gill added.
Citizens also continued to reach out directly for help — some saying they struggled with the system for weeks, and at least one saying they were stumped by it despite a 30-year career in computer programming.
More problems occurred as the Oct. 9, 2018, registration deadline to vote in the general election approached, per the documents obtained by American Oversight. Politico, which had reported on the technical difficulties with Florida’s OVR system in July of that year, reported in October that problems were persisting.
“We have had hundreds of complaints about the system being down or intermittent all weekend. On 10/6/18 we only received 1 online voter registration, which is highly unusual as we usually get hundreds,” Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher told Politico in an October email. “We have lines in our office and have fielded more than 1,500 calls this morning which is an unusually high volume,” she added.
In the morning on the day of the deadline, a staff member from Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections’ office reached out to the Florida Department of State after seeing reports of OVR outages on social media. Sarah Revell, who the documents identify as leading communications for the state on this issue, acknowledged that “some users were experiencing intermittent issues” the night before, but said the issue was “fully resolved” and that the website was “fully operational.”
But the Hillsborough County staffer followed up early that afternoon, flagging a Vote.org text message urging people to contact Florida’s Secretary of State to request an extension of the registration deadline due to OVR problems. Florida Democrats were suing at the time to extend the registration deadline due to disruption caused by Hurricane Michael, but the Republican state administration had defended limiting extensions by pointing to the online registration portal.
Revell responded that the state’s system was “fully functioning at this time” and that more than 11,500 people had used the site to submit or update their registration that day. The department was “actively monitoring for any potential issues however it is possible that the website may be a little slow due to a high volume of traffic,” she wrote.
Just 15 minutes later, the Hillsborough elections staffer emailed again to confirm that the state’s support lines for the website were working, because they were getting complaints that no one was answering.
“We are getting lots of calls from people saying that the OVR application is going down midway through filling it out,” the Hillsborough staffer wrote. “We are going to try and help them as much as possible to take the burden off your hotline number, but need to know if they can get through to someone on that number if we can’t help them.”
Revell confirmed that staff were answering the voter assistance hotline.
It remains unclear if the system will encounter the same sort of chaos in the countdown to Monday’s registration deadline. But recent tech issues within the Florida government, including the failure of its unemployment system to handle the crush of pandemic claims and the March hiccups with OVR itself, have watchdogs wary.
“Florida’s OVR system has suffered since the state launched it in 2017,” Brad Ashwell, Florida state director for All Voting Is Local outlined in a July op-ed in the Palm Beach Post. “It failed in 2018 when it was needed the most — the high volume days just before the primary election registration deadline in July of 2018, and again in October 2018, a day before the registration deadline for the general election. Most recently, it failed on March 29, shortly after the presidential preference primaries.
“In every instance,” he added, “Floridians were shut out of a critical step necessary to participate in our democracy.”
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