Civil rights organizations demand extension after elections website crashes

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Civil rights organizations issued demands Tuesday to extend the deadline to register to vote in Virginia.

The Department of Elections website became overwhelmed by online voter registrations Monday afternoon, and crashed repeatedly for hours before the 11:59 p.m. deadline.

“Our system was just overwhelmed with the level of activity we got,” said elections commissioner Edgardo Cortes. “It was far beyond any activity level we’ve seen before.”

Virginia’s voting system went online in the middle of 2013. Between then and then end of 2015, the highest number of people who had registered online in one day stood at approximately 2,200, according to Cortes.

More than ten times that number attempted to register online Monday, Cortes said.

Of them, 21,000 people were successful, but there is no way to calculate how many more were not.

“I personally feel terrible,” Cortes said. “Our system didn’t work the way that it should have worked. We were unable to handle the huge surge in activity yesterday and we are certainly sorry and we’re working to figure out and address that issue going forward.”

That’s little comfort to people like William Lafferty, who anticipated being able to vote for the first time in his life on November 8.

Lafferty was convicted of robbery, abduction and gun charges when he was 17, and spent the next 18 years in prison.

Upon his release four years ago, he went to community college, and now works as a mechanic in Virginia Beach.

Monday evening as he sat in rush hour traffic on Indian River Road, Lafferty got a call from the governor’s office, saying his voting rights had been restored.

Since it was too late to get to the registrar’s office, he spent the next two hours at his community college’s library, trying over and over again to register.

He went home when the library closed, and tried repeatedly from his phone.

“All night long, until about 12 o’clock, I was still doing the same thing, it kept telling me to refresh my page,” Lafferty said. “When I called the office [this morning] to see if my registration had gone through, they said, no, it hadn’t.”

Lafferty doesn’t believe that’s fair. Neither does the American Civil Liberties Union, nor the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Both organizations issued letters Monday, demanding that Virginia elections officials extend the deadline.

“Because it was the state’s failure to successfully operate the voter registration system, it is state’s burden to remedy this injustice,” wrote a spokesperson for the ACLU. “We urge the department to take any and all measures necessary to protect and ensure the fundamental right to vote in the 2016 election of any Virginian whose right may have been compromised or denied by the failure of legally required registration systems.”

Cortes responded to a similar letter from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, saying he lacks the authority to extend the deadline.

“We will continue to focus our efforts on improving our systems and working with the General Assembly to appropriately fund elections in the Commonwealth,” Cortes wrote in the letter.

“We believe the state Board of Elections and the commissioner […] can be ordered to comply with the law and make sure voters’ fundamental rights are not taken away from them,” said a spokesperson for LCCR.

But, the spokesperson acknowledged it would take a lawsuit and a judge’s order to accomplish the deadline extension.

LCCR has not yet filed a lawsuit, and the ACLU did not say whether it was preparing to do so.

Stay with for more on this developing story.