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Cut Fiber Optic Cable Knocks Virginia Voter Registration System Offline Hours Before Deadline

Illustration for article titled Cut Fiber Optic Cable Knocks Virginia Voter Registration System Offline Hours Before Deadline
Photo: Sarah Silbiger (Getty Images)

On the last day for residents across Virginia to register to vote in the coming election, multiple websites housing the state’s voter registration portal were suddenly knocked offline. Now, local authorities are pinning the blame on a mysteriously cut fiber optic cable.

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The news comes courtesy of Virginia’s Department of Elections, which tweeted out earlier today that the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) had traced the outages back to a cut fiber cable near the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center, a nearly 200,000 square-foot data center in Chester that has served Virginia’s state agencies for over a decade. According to the Department of Elections, the cut cable downed the voter registration portal and also “impacted” the website for the local voter’s registration office.

“Technicians are on site and working to repair; updates will be provided as work progresses,” the agency added, in a tweet timestamped just before 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday morning. As of this writing, both sites still return a page apologizing that the citizen portal is unavailable due to a “network outage.”

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It is currently unclear who cut the fiber optic cable or how it was cut.

Neither department offered a timeline for when either website might be expected to be online, and neither department responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment on whether these portals might come back online before end of day.

Just in case, it’s worth pointing out here that Virginia residents can still register to vote in person through a local registrar’s office, or by printing out a voter registration application and mailing it into their local board by the end of today. (It must be postmarked for Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.) Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax has also called for the state to extend its voter registration deadline, but you shouldn’t count on that happening.

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After Florida’s own voter registration portal crashed in early October due to traffic flooding its site, the state’s governor and secretary of state both pleaded with federal authorities to extend their own voter registration deadline. Last week, a federal judge officially turned them down, on the grounds that the state’s failure “to figure out how to run an election properly” shouldn’t be grounds for an extended registration window.

But to put it bluntly, a site’s failure to handle a little bit more traffic than usual is more than a little different than the site’s physical infrastructure being literally severed, which means Virginia’s case will likely be looked at a bit differently than Florida’s.

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We’ve reached out to spokespeople at both VITA and the Virginia Department of Elections for comment, and will update this story if we hear back.

I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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DISCUSSION

pedal-force
pedal-force

I mean, cut fiber optics cables are super common, people constantly cut stuff accidentally while digging.

For now, without more information, I’d say it’s probably a mistake (by a contractor that didn’t take necessary precautions such as calling One-Call (811, call before you dig, whatever it’s called in VA, I don’t know) or in an incorrect markout (fiber is harder to mark than other things because it doesn’t conduct electricity, and they don’t always bury a tracer wire on top of it). Sometimes you have to rely on the actual engineering plans, which for stuff like that, are usually a joke. So then your options are a. hand dig anywhere you might have questions, or b. let it rip with the big tools and blame someone else for the bad markout.

Contractors almost always choose B (unless they think it might be electric or gas, they don’t mind cutting fiber or getting wet if they can blame someone else, but they’re not looking to die).