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How did a cut wire crash Virginia's voter registration system? Here's a breakdown

The Virginia Information Technology Agency tweeted that a fiber cut near Route 10 in Chester, Virginia was to blame for Tuesday's outage.

WASHINGTON — After news broke that a severed fiber optic cable was responsible for temporarily shutting down Virginia's online voter registration system for several hours on Tuesday -- the last day for those in the commonwealth to register --  an uproar of claims poured in on social media: 

How could one wire so consequently impact the online voting system? Was this premeditated, or was it truly an accident? What happens if you attempted to register, but couldn't? Did you miss your shot?

While there are still a lot of unknowns as the investigation remains in preliminary phases, Tuesday's debacle ignited a call for increased security efforts and voting registration deadlines to be extended.

Here's a breakdown of what we know so far.

What was cut?

A "10 giga-byte" fiber optic cable that was running off Route 10 in Chester, Virginia -- about two hours outside of the nation's capital.

How did this happen?

The cable was struck during a county sewer installation project off Route 10, according to Teresa Bonifas, a spokesperson for Chesterfield County.  The sewage project had been ongoing since May 2020 and was to be completed by April 2021, with members of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) and Verizon working together to complete it.

A county contractor was working for the sewage installation project, Bonifas said. Under the Virginia Underground Damage Prevention Act, utility operators are required to mark underground lines to help prevent such damages, but this line was unmarked, Bonifas said. 

How long was the outage?

The Virginia Department of Elections announced the crash around 10 a.m. on social media. Those attempting to log on to register to vote were instead greeted with messages saying the site was  “temporarily unavailable” due to a “network outage."

"This morning we were alerted by [Virginia Information Technologies Agency] that a fiber cut near the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center was impacting data circuits and VPN connectivity for multiple agencies. This has affected the citizen portal along w/ registrar's offices," Virginia's Department of Elections tweeted.

By 3:30 p.m., election officials said the system was back up and running.

Why is this important?

The shutdown of the site -- and the circumstances that led to it -- impacted connectivity for multiple agencies in Virginia, like the registrars' office and even citizen portals for those checking ballot deadlines and other voting information.

The crash happened on the final day of voter registration in Virgina. 

Credit: WUSA9
This is the message that voters attempting to register saw during Tuesday's shutdown.

Were other circuits impacted? 

The wire was recently installed in the spring of 2020 in an attempt to help handle "increased workload due to COVID-19 and our shift to remote work," Dr. Keyanna Conner, Virginia's Secretary of Administration, said. 

According to Conner, the state does have backup circuits, although those circuits "are not as large." Part of the decision to switch circuits involved high demand from projects due to remote work, causing web applications to slow.

Was there a backup plan in place?

"We do have a resiliency plan already in place, where we will be upgrading our backup circuits in addition to the main circuit," Conner said during a briefing Tuesday.  "Later today we hopefully will have a temporary solution in place by 4 pm that will bring our services back online while Verizon continues to work on a permanent full repair of the circuit." 

What that resiliency plan entails, and if a third-party like Verizon would be responsible for upgrades, is not yet clear. Currently, there is no official resiliency plan listed on Northam's website.

Has the registration system crashed before? Have registration deadlines ever been extended? 

This isn’t the first time that voter registration has been compromised by technical problems in the commonwealth.

The VERIFY team looked into what happened during the 2016 election when a judge ruled to extend the registration deadline.

Our sources for this include the 2018 State Auditors submitted by the Virginia General Assembly, court documents of the decision in the 2016 lawsuit filed in Virginia, and John Freedman, one of the attorneys in that 2016 case.

According to the 2018 report, a surge of online applications overwhelmed the Versis's sever capacity, causing the system to crash. This happened right before the October 2016 registration deadline, similar to the October 2020 attack.

Three voter advocacy groups then filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections and a number of state election officials. Attorney John Freedman told WUSA9 that within days, the Eastern District Court of Virginia ruled that the registration deadline would be extended by 36 hours.

So we can confirm that yes, courts have gotten involved and extended the voter registration deadline in Virginia before -- even as recently as 2016.

RELATED: Virginia ACLU filing lawsuit to extend voter registration deadline

Do those registering to vote today have additional time now?

A lawsuit to extend the voter registration deadline in Virginia is being filed after the temporary outage, according to the ACLU of Virginia. 

In a press release, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said they are filing a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections and Virginia State Board of Elections and Commissioners on behalf of eligible voters who may have been prevented from registering Tuesday.

“The commonwealth failed the public and it must grant a significant extension to ensure all Virginians are given an equal opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said. “Extending the registration deadline is a common-sense step that can be taken to address the potential disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible people across Virginia."

Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation have also called for a 72-hour extension. 

How would an extension happen? 

Northam said during his Tuesday afternoon coronavirus briefing that according to state code, he does not have the authority to extend the voter registration deadline. Instead, it would need to come from the courts, which the governor said he would support. 

"I look forward to [the courts] assisting us and making sure we can extend the deadline,” Northam said.

RELATED: Virginia voter registration was down for hours on last day to register before election

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