'Hardware issue' affecting Pennsylvania online voter registration, mail-in ballot applications

The issue comes just weeks ahead of the November Election

An IT outage in Pennsylvania is affecting a slew of online services including voter registration and mail-in ballot applications, officials say.

The equipment failure occurred around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at a data center managed for the commonwealth by Unisys. It affects the Pennsylvania Departments of State, Revenue, Human Services, and Liquor Control Board, among others.

"We are working around the clock with our vendors to bring services back online as quickly as possible and will continue to do so until operations are fully restored," said Pennsylvania Secretary of Administration Michael Newsome in a press release.

FILE: Applications for mail-in ballots are seen at a satellite election office at Temple University's Liacouras Center in Philadelphia.

FILE: Applications for mail-in ballots are seen at a satellite election office at Temple University's Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. (AP)

Perhaps most concerning is that the hardware issue is affecting many of the Department of State’s “election-related and professional licensing services … including online voter registration and the online application for mail ballots,” Pennsylvania’s State Department said.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Pennsylvania residents still have other options, like downloading and printing the paper voter registration, mail ballot applications, and other election-related forms and applications.

"The outage is due to an issue with the contractor's equipment, and there is no evidence of malicious interference," Boockvar said. "All data was backed up, as always. Commonwealth IT personnel are working with Unisys to restore service as soon as possible."

The issue comes just weeks ahead of November's general election, in which an onslaught of mail-in ballots is expected in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Potential problems are looming most acutely in Pennsylvania, which is being hotly contested by President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Republican state lawmakers there have not allowed additional time to process ballots that arrive before Election Day, despite pleas from local election officials.

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Pennsylvania is expected to see 3 million or more mail-in ballots — half of this year's total and a ten-fold increase from 2016. Registered Democrats are applying at a rate of nearly 3 to 1 over Republicans.

"The longer it takes for the election results to be known, the greater the risk that they're going to be questioned and second-guessed, and that we're going to be that national news story that we really don't want to be," said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

FILE: An employee of the Philadelphia Commissioners Office examines ballots at a satellite election office at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. 

FILE: An employee of the Philadelphia Commissioners Office examines ballots at a satellite election office at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia.  (AP)

The seemingly mundane administrative task of processing ballots — verifying signatures and other voter information to ensure legitimacy, and separating them from their envelope so they are ready to be tabulated — essentially readies ballots for counting on Election Day. That helps speed up the release of results.

County officials have pushed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and state lawmakers to set aside a larger partisan fight and let them process mail-in ballots before Election Day. They argue that doing so will speed up vote counting amid concerns that the presidential election result will hang in limbo over a drawn-out count.

During a recent rally in Pennsylvania, Trump said the only way he will lose the state is if Democrats "steal the election."

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"A lot of people are worried that if it takes a long time to count, people are going to use that to say we can't trust the results, when in fact it's the exact opposite," said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center's Election Reform Program. "It's taking so long because of all these security measures to make sure the count is as accurate as possible."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.