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Election officials in states and localities across the country have always been aware of the need for preparedness. Managing the voting process by its very nature requires extensive preparation—choosing and staffing polling places, designing and printing ballots, building and maintaining voter lists, procuring and managing voting technology, etc.—but increasingly, the work of getting ready for Election Day has meant being prepared for things election officials can’t control.

As the nation rolls into a presidential election year, state and local officials are facing a new threat about which they (and everyone else) knows very little, and that threat could literally follow voters through the door: the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. Although the coronavirus is not the first threat to affect elections, the potential of a nationwide outbreak begs the question: How can the election and emergency preparedness communities collaborate more effectively for real systemic change?     

Election Community’s Preparedness Responses Over the Years

In the years following 9/11, states and localities have put time and effort into creating continuity of operations plans that help them respond to emergencies and other events. These plans have been tested time and again by Mother Nature, as election offices react and respond to major weather events, including hurricanes, wildfires, and (most recently) tornadoes. The response has usually been incredibly creative, with election officials finding a way to use community election centers to keep voting open despite widespread damage that often claims polling places.

There has been a similar focus on responding to darker threats. As mass shooting incidents have increased, some jurisdictions are now requiring that their election offices and poll workers receive training on how to react to these events—namely, how to run, hide, or fight to protect themselves and voters. In addition, many communities are restricting access to schools for voting, either by moving elections out of the building entirely or keeping students home on Election Day.

Since 2016, the election community has been engaged in efforts to improve its preparedness against online threats. In response to reports of foreign interference with the American election process, the Federal Government has declared the nation’s election system to be critical infrastructure, and Congress has invested over $800 million dollars in federal election cybersecurity funds for states and localities to harden their voting systems against intrusion and interference.

COVID-19’s Current Impact on 2020 Elections

Right now, we know very little about the coronavirus other than growing reports of cases worldwide, but concern about the disease’s spread has sparked policy debates, has roiled markets, and has led to many questions about what impact it could have on all aspects of American life.

Election officials nationwide have already faced challenges associated with COVID-19. In some California counties with reported cases, election officials announced that voters can drop off their ballots at curbside locations to avoid coming into polling places. Communities in Texas reported poll worker no-shows on Super Tuesday because of fears of infection. And in Washington State, election officials are asking voters not to lick their vote-by-mail envelopes in hopes of reducing the potential of transmitting COVID-19.

FMG’s Recommendation for Change

These stories, which are certain to grow in number as the 2020 election cycle continues and we learn more about COVID-19, indicate that the nation’s election community is going to need to coordinate its response in the face of a more widespread outbreak just as more and more voters are headed to the polls. They should not have to go it alone. Although election administration is a state and local responsibility, this threat—just like natural disasters, threats of violence, or foreign interference—require a national response and, thus, should involve federal resources and expertise. This approach has been very successful in the area of election cybersecurity, with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

As COVID-19 spreads, the nation needs a similar approach to the challenges associated with protecting voters and the election process generally from the threat of infection. Federal authorities, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have considerable resources and expertise in community response but lack the specific knowledge of the election process. CDC has weighed in with coronavirus recommendations for polling places but for now they are general cautions about disinfecting voting equipment and maintaining social distancing measures. [And already, some communities are reporting issues with ballot scanners being jammed by ballots moist with hand sanitizer - indicating that preparedness efforts may need to be tweaked further.For its part, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission also has a page with general information about voting machines and key state responses here. 

Here at Fors Marsh Group (FMG), we have teams who work closely with DHS, FEMA, and other federal entities on preparedness, and our elections team is in constant contact with members of the election community nationwide. Coordination between these two communities is crucial to the work of scoping out the nature of the threat, assessing what can be done to prepare, and communicating to the public what steps are being taken to protect the health of both the general public and American democracy in 2020 and beyond. 

Now is the time to reinvent preparedness in the electoral space, and FMG’s Emergency Preparedness and Elections teams are up to the challenge. Contact our team of experts to get started.

About the author

Doug Chapin

Doug Chapin

Doug Chapin serves as Director of Election Research for Fors Marsh Group. In his role, Doug is responsible for leading the research, analysis, and delivery of FMG’s election research programs and our fantastic staff of experts in this field. Doug joined FMG from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where he served as the founder and first director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration. This master- and undergraduate-level certificate program is aimed at students as well as practitioners and works to identify, recruit, and train the next generation of election administrators nationwide.

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