By Caitlin Ostroff and Steve Bousquet
That huge swirling menace in the Gulf known as Hurricane Michael has the attention of Floridians four weeks before Election Day.
But a disturbance of another kind is intensifying, and it involves voting.
Two controversies erupted at once Tuesday, one over a state online voter registration system and the other involving the storm's disruption of the last day that Florida residents could become eligible voters in 2018.
Complaints multiplied from people who say the state's online registration portal was not working. The portal, which was a year old on Oct. 1, has had glitches before, but never this close to a voter registration deadline, and it prompted threats of legal action.
"It's extremely troubling. This is one moment where the states' online systems need to operate," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In light of the glitches and the hurricane, she said her organization plans to submit an injunction in federal court to extend the deadline.
Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, denied that any problems with the system existed on Tuesday. "Online voter registration is fully functioning at this time and people are successfully using the site to register to vote or to update their current registration," said Detzner's spokeswoman, Sarah Revell.
Revell said it was possible that the website "may be a little slow" due to a high traffic volume. On Tuesday alone, she said, more than 11,500 people accessed the site before 1 p.m. Eastern time. Revell said there were "intermittent" problems with the system Monday, but they were fixed. She did not say what the problem was, or how it was resolved.
Daniel Perez, a suburban Tampa voter, said he found an error page at about 11:20 a.m. Tuesday. The problem went away, he said, but the address field deleted itself after he clicked out of it.
"I've never had any issues up until now," Perez said. "It's just weird."
Last Friday, Kevin Davis issued a reminder about the various states' voter registration deadlines to the 40 men he oversees at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
Davis, a Florida resident, said he began hearing that a few of the men in his systems operations unit were getting error messages on the state website.
While watching the New Orleans Saints-Washington Redskins football game Monday night, he said, he tried to update his own record and received the error message.
If the men in his unit can't register, they can't vote.
"A lot of them are young, so this is their first time voting," Davis said.
The online system was created by the Florida Legislature on the recommendation of county election supervisors as another option for people to register or to update their record if they've moved or changed their name.
Florida has a rich history of razor-close elections and polls show very tight races for governor and U.S. Senate. Both parties are working feverishly to get their base supporters to cast ballots in Florida's triple-option voting system, where people vote by mail, early or in person on Election Day.
The fast-approaching storm's disruption of the last day of voter registration prompted Scott's administration to extend the registration deadline by one day, but only in those counties that planned to close all or part of Tuesday because of the hurricane.
"It's the right remedy. I think it makes pretty good sense," said Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux in Okaloosa County, which closed at noon Tuesday and plans to reopen Thursday morning.
But it wasn't enough for the Florida Democratic Party, which filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to extend the registration deadline by a full week.
Democrats called Detzner's one-day proposal insufficient and confusing and said it fails to protect Floridians' voting rights.
If Detzner doesn't extend the deadline by a week in the affected areas, the Democrats said, "thousands of eligible voters will be disenfranchised."
The Democrats' lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, the same court that two years ago ordered a six-day extension of the voter registration deadline because of widespread evacuations Scott ordered during Hurricane Matthew.
That order was issued two years ago this week by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who wrote: "No right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy."
Then there's the hurricane, which has enough power to damage or destroy polling stations just four weeks before a critical statewide election and two weeks before the start of early voting in many counties.
"The biggest concern is damage to our precincts that could make them unusable," Lux said.
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