By Patricia Brigham and Max Feldman
This continues to be a devastating week for Florida. Hurricane Michael has taken lives, wrecked homes, and destroyed whole communities. It has also had a significant, destructive effect on our democracy.
On Monday, social media lit up with reports that Florida’s voters were encountering problems with the state’s online voter registration system, just one day before the state’s voter registration deadline. Compounding the challenge, on the same day, Gov. Rick Scott extended a state of emergency to 35 counties due to Hurricane Michael.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner rightly extended the voter registration deadline. But the extension applies only to officials whose offices were forced to close because of the weather, giving them until the day after their office reopens to accept registration forms. The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Tuesday, asking for a week-long extension statewide, but a federal judge rejected the request on Thursday.
Neither election controversies nor hurricanes are new in Florida. Going forward, the state must put in place processes that minimize the impact of both natural disasters and system malfunctions.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just two years ago, in response to the disruption caused by Hurricane Matthew, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Brennan Center had to go to court to get the state to extend the voter registration deadline. That case established that the state must act to fix severe disruptions to election administration.
First, the state should create and publicize a top-flight voter registration emergency-preparedness plan. We know that Florida is vulnerable to extreme weather, and we know that hurricane season coincides with election season. The state should outline the specific steps it will take to protect Floridians’ right to vote in the face of recurring natural disasters, including how to make sure people can register in the face of power outages, evacuations and election office closings. And it should develop these plans with input from voters and the groups that advocate for their interests ahead of election season. Including relevant stakeholders in these important pre-election discussions will lead to better planning, and it may minimize the line of groups running to the courthouse.
Second, solutions need to reflect the situation at hand. Elections administrators should carefully evaluate the disruptions to the system and create a rational and responsive remedy. This year, the single-day extension approved by Detzner — while helpful — will be insufficient if disruptions caused by the hurricane prevent many would-be voters from returning within the day after an office reopens. An online registration system that allows people to register remotely is of little use to potential registrants if there are significant power outages.
Third, all election-related technology, including the online registration system, must be secured, audited and subject to frequent testing. Online voter registration is a critical modernization tool that has quickly become the norm across the country. But like any computer system, it can be slow, suffer from glitches, be hacked, or simply fail. Floridians ran into problems with it before this year’s primary elections, and the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Brennan Center worked cooperatively with the state to address these issues. Unfortunately, it seems problems have also resurfaced in advance of the general election registration deadline. These glitches are particularly problematic because the state has encouraged voters to turn to the online system in the event that their county elections office is closed because of the hurricane. Election administrators need to use all of the tools at their disposal to make sure that our election technology works well and remains secure.
It is at moments like this that we can take full measure of the fragility and the strength of this state, its communities and its people. Emergency workers and ordinary citizens are rushing into the wreckage right now to the save the lives of their fellow Floridians. As we deal with the consequences of this catastrophic hurricane, we must not forget that the core of our state’s strength is its democracy. It is imperative that Florida’s government take all necessary steps to protect the state’s voting systems and preserve the right to vote.
Patricia Brigham is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, and Max Feldman is a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.