Severed Internet Cable Breaks Virginia Voter Registration Portal on Deadline Day

Election officials in Virginia are blaming a severed fiber optic cable for taking down its voter registration website on the final day that residents are allowed to register to vote before next month’s election.

The event is the second major voter registration site outage in recent weeks and the latest in a long line of election infrastructure outages during critical periods before major elections. Earlier this month, Florida’s online voter registration system crashed for several hours due to unprecedented demand. In 2018, Georgia’s site shut down days before the registration deadline. 

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“This morning, the Department of Elections was alerted by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency that a fiber cut near Rt. 10 in Chester near the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center was impacting data circuits and virtual private network connectivity for multiple Commonwealth agencies,” a spokesperson for Virginia’s Department of Elections said in an email. “This has affected the Department’s citizen portal along with local registrar’s offices across the Commonwealth. Verizon technicians are on site and working to repair the cut; updates will be provided as work progresses.”

At this moment we have no idea whether the outage was an accident or something more purposeful, but it comes at a critical time. Voter registration websites are regularly overwhelmed with new voter registrations close to the deadline, and Republicans have been vehemently fighting registration extensions. In Florida, a judge struck down an order to extend the deadline after that state’s outage; Republicans in Arizona are currently fighting a similar extension in court. 

Regardless of what happened in Virginia, the incident shows how fragile the infrastructure that supports democracy really is. Critical government websites around the country often run on outdated software, have been routinely hit with ransomware and other attacks, and often don’t have failsafes should servers go down. For example, unemployment insurance websites around the country were overwhelmed for months during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis.