Election Disasters

The ongoing trauma of hurricane Katrina is raising numerous issues regarding how we manage and coordinate services in the wake of a natural disaster. Being an election geek, one thought I had before the levies broke and Katrina flooded New Orleans was this: what would have happened if Tuesday had been election day in Louisiana? Or, what if one of the tornados that were spawned by Katrina had hit a polling place in Georgia or Alabama? In short, what do states do in the case of natural disasters that occur during an election?

The key here, obviously, is to plan ahead for what to do in case of a disaster and to think through the plans you develop. The National Association of Secretaries of State developed a simple document to give some basic guidance on how to start the planning process, although this document focuses more specifically on terrorist threats.

Some states, in response to specific events, have developed state plans for what to do in the case of a general disaster or election disruption. In Utah for instance, Salt Lake County had to have a bomb scare on election day before the state developed a plan for how to address disasters and crises on election day. Most innovative, however, may be the recent draft rules issued on August 4, 2005 by the Secretary of State in Colorado. According to Draft Rule 43, all counties must file an emergency and security plan with the state. The Rule states:

Included in the security procedures filed with the secretary of state shall be a section entitled “contingency plan.” The contingency plan shall include:

(a) Evacuation procedures for emergency situations including fire, bomb threat, civil unrest, and any other emergency situations identified by the designated election official;

(b) Back up plans for emergency situations including fire, severe weather, bomb threat, civil unrest, electrical blackout, equipment failure, and any other emergency situations identified by the designated election official;

(c) An emergency checklist for election judges; and

(d) A list of emergency contact numbers provided to election judges.

Election officials are receiving training on the new rule in Colorado and are being encouraged to poke holes in existing plans. For example, if you have to evaculate, what do you do with the voted and unvoted ballots? With the voter registration rolls? Other supplies? Can poll workers allow people to vote outside the polling place while the potential disaster is addressed? The requirement in Colorado to even have a plan, and to get training on this important issue, is something other states might want to examine closely.