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Technical woes creating more hurdles for Florida ballot initiatives

State attributes outage in part to tight window to develop new website

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(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida placed new restrictions on petition gatherers this year, including a requirement that they register with the Department of State.

But the new requirements suffered a setback when the registration page on the agency's website went down last week. The state reports that it's working to get the site back online as soon as possible.

The new rules were widely opposed by those who have worked to put petition-driven initiatives on the ballot, people like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.

"If this law had been in place when we were trying to get signatures to put water and land funding on the ballot, I don't think we would have made it," Moncrief said.

Moncrief said the registration site outage is yet another obstacle paid petition gatherers must now overcome, on top of securing signatures to put issues before the public for votes.

The Department of State attributed the recent round of technical woes in part to the short timeframe the agency had to develop the site to accommodate those registering petitions with the state.

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"The petition process is important, and we are doing everything in our means to ensure the process continues as smoothly as possible," Secretary of State Laurel Lee said. "The Department of State is aware that there are operational issues with the Division of Elections Paid Petition Circulator website. We do not have any reason to believe that these operational issues are the result of external system intrusions."

Still, even before the site went down, there were numerous reports of it not working properly.

"If they're going to pass a terrible bill like this at the least the system can be operational on day one," Moncrief said.

Some groups have gone so far as to suggest the outage is intentional, but State Rep. James Grant -- who originally sponsored the legislation behind the new requirements, denied the allegations.

"I don't think anyone had an intent or even an expectation that some of the antiquated servers and challengers would lead to this problem, but I can promise you that both the Secretary and I are committed to making sure we get it right," Grant said.

Intentional or not, Moncrief said, lawmakers should have anticipated what could go wrong with the process before rolling out the new system.

"Before lawmakers press the button and make a bill effective, perhaps they should do some planning to make sure that we don't run across problems like this," he said.

Grant said in addition to the website, he's concerned that some people might be deliberately disobeying the registration requirements. He said he's focused on addressing both of these issues.

The state said it has contacted ballot initiative sponsors to inform them about alternative ways to register, but he did not go into detail when asked about what those alternatives might be.