How should election officials manage crisis situations?

Let’s say you are an election official, and one of the following scenarios happens:

  • You find out days before a major general election that snafus have either prevented or substantially delayed the mailing of more than 400,000 absentee ballots.
  • You find out after the close of voting that a storage device used to record electronic ballots did not have the storage capacity that you assumed it did, resulting in the loss of 4,500 votes.
  • Polling places open as expected on election day, but a major terrorist attack causes a massive disruption of the election in a large part of your jurisdiction.
  • An bitterly contested election you administer is decided by only a few hundred votes, and the candidate that you announce to be the loser claims that fraud and malfeasance in your office cost him the election.

Each of these scenarios have happened in recent years (King County, Washington; Carteret County, North Carolina; New York City; Compton, California). And in each case, election officials scrambled to deal with the crisis, controversy, and public scrutiny.

A recent study from Donald P. Moynihan, “Leveraging Collaborative Networks in Infrequent Emergency Situations”, provides election officials with some important lessons for how they might establish networks — or utilize existing networks — to deal with infrequent but serious crises. Moynihan analyzes a particular case, an outbreak of “Exotic Newcastle Disease” in California and Western states, and studies how a variety of federal, state, and local government agencies teamed up with some private organizations to produce an effective response to the outbreak of this poultry disease. The last major outbreak of this disease had occurred decades before, and technology had changed so dramatically, that the relevant stakeholders had little precedent to draw upon in devising a rapid and effective response strategy. But core to the response, as Moynihan argues, was the development of a task force, that itself facilitated connections between responders through existing networks and worked to forge new connections between responders who had previously not been networked together.

Moynihan’s report concludes with a series of lessons learned and important recommendations. The five recommendations are well worth consideration by election officials as they develop emergency response and threat assessment strategies:

  1. Pre-plan — but expect to plan some more once the emergency occurs.
  2. Identify the resources needed to deal with the emergency and match them with the competencies of organizations.
  3. Create trust where you can; find alternatives where you can’t.
  4. Take advantage of technology innovation to dramatically improve emergency network coordination and efficacy.
  5. Establish, formalize, and communicate basic procedures that familiarize workers with their tasks.

These are solid recommendations that election officials might adopt for emergency or crisis situation contingency plans, if they have such a plan. And if you don’t have an emergency or crisis plan, then you might consider developing one soon!