Sliced cable causes Virginia IT systems to fail on last day to register to vote

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

A severed fiber-optic cable near the state government’s Chesterfield County data center caused Virginia’s voter registration system and several other computerized functions to fail Tuesday morning, according to officials.

The outage came on the last day to register to vote in Virginia, as officials and civic groups were putting out last-minute calls directing people to sign up on a website that wasn’t functioning properly.

The system failure is expected to lead to a lawsuit asking a court to extend the registration deadline, a resolution Gov. Ralph Northam and other state leaders said they would support.

“That deadline is set in our code and it does not appear that I have the authority to change it,” Northam said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “That is up to the courts.”

The outage lasted well into the afternoon. Officials announced the voter registration portal was back online shortly before 3:30 p.m.

The Virginia Information Technologies Agency addressed the issue in a tweet posted around 9 a.m., saying workers were on site repairing the cut.

Early Tuesday afternoon, the agency said the cable was “inadvertently struck” as part of a Chesterfield roadside utility project, adding that VITA, Verizon and the county working to fix it.

VITA said the cut was “impacting data circuits and virtual private network (VPN) connectivity for multiple Commonwealth agencies.”

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, a Chesterfield County spokeswoman said the “unmarked underground utility line” was accidentally struck during work on a county sewer installation project on Route 10 in Chester that’s been going on since May.

“According to VITA, the line was repaired and service was restored around 3:30 p.m. today,” the county said.

That included the Virginia DMV and the Virginia Department of Health, whose online COVID-19 dashboard was down. The DMV said it was unable to process transactions and any appointments customers had made would have to be rescheduled.

The Virginia Employment Commission, currently dealing with a surge of out-work people seeking assistance during the pandemic, said it too was “unable to perform many agency functions at this time.”

In addition to impeding voter registration, the outage also affected early voting, which involves election officials checking voters’ eligibility against a state database.

The Virginia Beach registrar’s office posted a Facebook notice saying voters showing up to vote in person would have to cast a provisional ballot, meaning a ballot that will be set aside until officials can verify the voter’s eligibility.

The widespread outage raised questions about why the so many government functions rely on a single piece of IT infrastructure with no backup ready to kick in if it fails.

“This particular cable was vital to us,” Northam said. “There was not a backup to that particular cable.”

Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said the 10-gigabyte circuit at issue was installed in the spring to help with the state’s increased broadband demands as state employees worked from home.

“While we do have backup circuits, those circuits are not as large,” Conner said, adding that the state is working on a “resiliency plan” to upgrade the backups.

The state’s voter registration has had problems at the deadline before. In 2016, a traffic surge caused the website to crash, prompting a federal judge to order the state to reopen its registration window to accommodate people who may have been locked out.

Several Democratic leaders, including Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have called for the voter registration deadline to be extended.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the group that sued the state in 2016 to have the deadline extended, said Tuesday that they expect to file similar litigation in Virginia to address the current outage.

“It is astonishing that Virginia has not learned from failures of the not-so-distant past,” Kristen Clarke, the group’s president and executive director, said in a news release.

If litigation does arise, the state could take a posture similar to 2016, when Attorney General Mark Herring’s office didn’t contest the litigation and said the state welcomed efforts to reopen the registration period.

In a tweet, Herring said he has “deep concerns” about the outage.

“I’ve always taken action to ensure you can safely cast your ballot in-person or by mail and to ensure your vote will count, and we are approaching this situation in exactly the same way,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

Mercury Editor Robert Zullo contributed.