I. In Focus This Week
Elections officials prepare for the unexpected
From manhunts to Ebola to protests, 2014 sees variety of potentially disruptive issues
In Monroe County, Pennsylvania Elections Director Sara May-Silfee is busy doing all the things elections officials do in these final weeks leading up to Election Day.
She’s updating her voter rolls, she’s making sure all her supplies are in order and that poll workers are trained. She’s got hand sanitizer for all the polling places and in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, she’s keeping a wary eye on the long range forecast.
In addition to this and so much more, May-Silfee is wondering what, if any impact the ongoing manhunt for accused cop killer Eric Frein may have on the election.
“My biggest fear at the moment is that the police, FBI, etc. still will not have apprehended suspect Eric Frein and I will have to arrange to move polling places or if they have the roads closed near the polling locations,” May-Silfee said.
While elections officials always need to prepare for the unexpected on Election Day, this year a handful of officials throughout the country are keeping an eye on unique and potentially disruptive situations.
May-Silfee said she has yet to get guidance from the state, but she’s working on a plan should elections in Monroe become impacted.
Dallas County has become the epicenter for the Ebola outbreak in the United States with three people who have become ill and with many quarantined. Because the quarantine period can be up to 21 days, there is the potential for voters in Dallas County to not be able to get to the polls on Election Day.
“As this is a uniquely rare occurrence, we do not have items in our elections administration toolkit to address the lack of experience we have with the current outbreak of Ebola in Dallas County,” Pippins-Poole said. “We are however, closely monitoring the available information; and also participating in the dialogue with the major policy and procedural decision-making parties involved with this crisis.”
Pippins-Poole said her office is also utilizing the resources it has on hand or can obtain quickly such as pre-existing health kits that are distributed to polling places.
“We are considering placement of gloves and masks into supply boxes. We must also measure how any of these responses would affect administration of the November 4th General Election,” she said.
And what about a voter who is already under quarantine? According to Pippins-Poole, the state’s chief election officer has advised her office that a voter under a quarantine order or due to risk factor has volunteered to be quarantined, does qualify for voting by mail.
However, because Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids and because the jury is still out on how long the virus lives outside of the body, Pippins-Poole said the safety of elections workers needs to be taken into consideration.
The state is currently conducting a pilot program to allow military voters serving in hostile fire pay zones to cast their absentee ballots via email. In consultation with the county attorney, Pippins-Poole believes that Dallas County could obtain the legal approval necessary to offer this option to infected/quarantined voters.
If given approval to allow affected voters to cast their ballot by email, Pippins-Poole and her staff have come up with a seven-step process for dealing with requests.
In Saint Louis County, Missouri, where protests over the killing of Michael Brown have disrupted everything from baseball games to the symphony, Democratic Director of Elections Senator Rita Heard Days said elections preparations are fairly business as usual.
“The preparation for this mid-term election is very similar to others in the past,” Days said. “We are having the usual struggles with hiring poll workers and requesting building locations for our voters.”
Days said the elections office has also met with Justice Department officials in the elections division and they have provided some suggestions. She has also been in contact with county police chief to make sure that he is aware of the polling locations that may need additional assistance.
Sixteen of the counties 444 polling places are located in Ferguson.
“We have talked to our election judges and some of them are concerned about potential unrest in Ferguson,” Days said. “Those workers have been moved to other locations. There were only a few that fit this scenario.”
And don’t rule out problems caused by Mother Nature, who has been known to be a bit of a contrarian when it comes to Election Day.
Fortunately though for John Tuteur, Napa County, California registrar, the 6.0 earthquake that rocked Napa County at the end of August happened just long enough ago that the county was able to accommodate any issues long before the last minute.
The building where the county elections offices are housed was damaged in the earthquake, but fortunately for other reasons, the county had recently purchased a four-building complex and the elections office was able to relocate there the day after the earthquake.
None of the ballot tabulation equipment or other electronic voting devices were damaged in the earthquake. Tuteur said that fortunately all the polling places and vote-by-mail assistance centers survived the quake as well and they are ready to go.
Unfortunately though, many voters were impacted and many are still displaced. Tuteur said the quake happened long enough before the election that his office had enough time to update the voter instructions that went out with all mail ballots. The county is about 88 percent vote-by-mail.
“There have been several hundred small aftershocks but I believe their frequency and occurrence have dropped to nearly zero so we do not expect any higher risk of an aftershock than of another earthquake on a different fault in the vicinity,” Tuteur said.
Robert Giles, director of elections for the State of New Jersey knows a thing or two about dealing with the unexpected during election season.
Two years ago his state was devastated by Superstorm Sandy just days before polls were set to open and his office was forced to find alternative ways for cast their ballots.
While residents are still displaced and rebuilding two years on, Giles said elections officials are ready for November 4.
“Some of what we learned is that New Jersey has an incredible group of dedicated county and local election officials that take great pride in what they do and they are always willing to do whatever it takes to conduct elections,” Giles said.
In addition to learning about the resilience of the state’s elections administrator, Giles said there were some other takeaways from the post-Sandy election that officials all over the country can use.
One important piece of advice I can give is establishing and maintaining good communication with everyone from the beginning and throughout the process,” Giles said. “This is critical in getting updated information out and keeping everyone on the same page.”
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