Server configuration caused Florida voter registration crash

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s chief information officer said Wednesday that misconfigured computer servers — not a cyberattack — were to blame for the crash of the state’s voter registration system as the deadline approached for enrolling to cast ballots in next month’s presidential election.

Because of Monday’s crash, Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed additional registrations for seven hours on Tuesday.

James Grant told The Associated Press in an interview that the voter registration system worked as expected during that extra time after technicians reconfigured existing servers to expand the network’s capacity and give the system a “whole lot more horsepower.”

It was not immediately known how many people were prevented from registering to vote during Monday’s bottleneck.

Grant said no one had any intention of preventing people from registering to vote, but he acknowledged that the system failed on a critical day.

“The servers were configured in a way that reduced its capacity to a fraction of a fraction of what it was capable of,” Grant said.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee issued a statement late Tuesday saying it does not appear that bad actors caused Monday’s collapse of registration system. Lee said the system overloaded when more than a million attempts to register came in by the hour.

Cyber security experts have said that an intentional attack aimed at crippling the system would have involved millions of attempts per second.

The snafu comes as Florida prepares for a nationally watched ballot box showdown between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, Lee held a meeting with elections officials across the state, as well as federal, state and local law enforcement officials, to discuss potential Election Day disruptions — including problems with mail delivery, violence and other disturbances at polling places.

The potential for outside meddling is an especially sensitive issue in Florida, a key battleground in November’s election. The state has lingering questions about Russian hacking during the election four years ago.

Monday’s trouble with the voter registration website stoked concern, but there was relief that the cause was far less sinister.

“We have not identified any evidence of interference or malicious activity impacting the site,” Lee said.

Some in the Florida media speculated that a tweet by pop superstar Ariana Grande to her 77 million followers Monday afternoon might have created a spike that crashed the system. Her tweet urged her fellow Floridians to register before that night’s deadline.

Jim DeFede, a reporter at Miami’s CBS affiliate, first raised the prospect Wednesday morning, noting that Grande’s tweet happened about two hours before the trouble began. The tweet linked to the website of HeadCount, a group that aims to register music fans to vote. Its site would send Floridians to the state’s registration website.

“We’re aware of the speculation but haven’t determined if there is any validity to it,” said Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis.

The statewide voter registration system, which serves Florida’s 67 counties, went online in October 2017. There have been some problems before, but nothing like Monday’s meltdown.

The Secretary of State’s Office had put in additional servers to accommodate a surge in voter registrations, but they were virtually useless because they weren’t optimized to handle the increased traffic.

“How are we one of the largest states in the nation, and our government continuously fails to properly run a website?” asked Stephanie Porta, the executive director of Organize Florida, one of several voting and minority rights groups that filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the state to extend voter registration for at least two more days. They argue that Tuesday’s extension was insufficient.

“This is not the first time that the voter registration website has crashed prior to a major election,” said Moné Holder, the senior program director for New Florida Majority, another party to the lawsuit.

“The online voter registration site failed because it was designed to fail,” Holder said.

U.S. District Chief Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee rejected the groups’ request for an immediate extension late Tuesday, but said he would consider their demand after a hearing on Thursday.

They argue that the rights of those who tried to register Monday were violated because they did not have the same access to the system as those who registered earlier. DeSantis said Tuesday that his extension equaled the time the system experienced problems and was sufficient.

In a Wednesday night filing, the state argued that extending voter registration again would create confusion, as voting for the presidential election has already begun. The response said continuing voter registration could also interfere with county elections offices around the state as they process vote-by-mail ballots and administer early voting.

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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale.

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