[Image courtesy of Mythical Creatures]
On Tuesday – in observation of National Preparedness Month – the U.S. Election Assistance Commission hosted an event entitled Contingency Planning in Elections. The EAC has done a terrific job in publicizing the need for contingency planning and this event represents a capstone of that effort.
When we talk about contingency planning, we usually think about natural disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes and floods – or, as they are known on the East Coast, “August and September”. The most compelling story to me on Tuesday, though, was that of Harris County, TX, home to Houston and one of the most populous counties in the U.S.
In the pre-dawn hours of August 27, 2010, Harris County’s main election warehouse was hit by a huge fire that destroyed 10,000 voting machines – the County’s entire inventory – 67 days before Election Day and seven weeks before early voting (popular in Texas) was scheduled to begin. Reached for comment by a reporter, County Clerk Bev Kaufman (who had already announced her retirement) remembers asking, “can I go throw up first”?
What happened over the next 67 days was nothing short of amazing. As described on Tuesday in a presentation entitled “From Blaze to Praise” by Kaufman’s successor Stan Stanart, Harris County decided that it would commit to business as usual on Election Day and did everything it could to make that happen, including:
- borrowing voting machines from neighboring jurisdictions;
- using insurance funds to push the equipment vendor to build machines;
- encouraging early/absentee voting; and
- making paper ballots available as a backup just in case.
The election became a community affair; new machines were stored at Reliant Arena, home of the NFL Texans, and community organizations were enlisted to spread the word to voters about the commitment to a smooth Election Day.
By Election Day, Harris County had met its goals. While there was about one machine fewer per polling place and a dramatically increased turnout compared to 2006, the vast majority of voters were still able cast ballots on the machines.
What makes the Harris County story so compelling is the magnitude of the loss so close to Election Day. The reaction of the election office to the fire is certainly valuable as a cautionary tale (the moral: “be prepared”) but I think it is even more powerful as an example of what can be accomplished when an entire community pulls together to overcome disaster and – like Harris County – figuratively (if not literally) rise from the ashes.