electionlineWeekly Examines Polling Place Security in Wake of San Bernardino Attack


[Image via ABC7]

In the wake of last week’s attack on a government building in San Bernardino County that left 14 dead and more wounded, electionline’s Mindy Moretti reached out to the head of the County’s election office as part of a larger look at polling place security for the latest edition of electionlineWeekly:

The San Bernardino County, California Elections Office has a set of basic safety procedures in place for polling places, early voting sites and the office. The procedures instruct employees what to do when there is a fire, earthquake, power outage, medical emergency or terrorism.

Sadly, following the murder of 14 county employees last week at a holiday party, those basic procedures are about to change.

“We are planning on working with our county sheriff to review and significantly modify those procedures,” said Michael Scarpello, registrar of voters.

Scarpello said the county had already planned to modify some of their safety procedures, but last week’s tragic events have made those changes an even higher priority.

Regardless of the reason, polling place security has always been a priority for elections officials, however in light of the recent events in San Bernardino County and in Sandy Hook nearly three years ago, how they go about that has taken on new meaning and in some respects new urgency.

Following Sandy Hook, many school districts worked to have polling places removed from school buildings for the safety of students and staff.

Tammy Patrick who served on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA)said the Commission repeatedly heard about schools no longer wanting to serve as polling places and so the PCEA recommended that while schools should still be used as polling places, that Election Day should be a school holiday or in-service day for teachers.

The PCEA didn’t really address broader safety issues.

“Safety at the polls itself was not within the purview of the President’s Executive Order and really wasn’t within our scope,” Patrick said.

However, when she was an elections official in Arizona, Patrick said poll workers dealt with everything from being robbed to being threatened with a gun.

“It is critical that poll workers understand how to handle situations that may arise, but that we don’t paint a picture of this being a common occurrence,” Patrick said. “The worse thing that we could do as a profession is create an environment that buys into the notion that we must be fearful in exercising the franchise.”

Wendy Weiser with the Brennan Center for Justice agreed with Patrick that it’s important to secure the polls without disenfranchising anyone.

“We certainly agree that it is a laudable goal to work to improve polling place safety, but in taking steps to do so, it is critical that election officials not inadvertently discourage voting or create procedures that can lead to long lines at the polls.  I am confident that a thoughtful effort–that consults best practices on line and polling place management (such as those referenced in the 2014 report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration) and avoids known practices that can discourage participation (such as visible police patrols or racial profiling)–can lead to improved security without hindering the voting process,” Weiser said. “But it is critical that these considerations be addressed before any new security measures are put in place.”

Patrick said that in preparing for Election Day it is important that election officials have contingency plans in place that consider interruption of voting for a variety of reasons.

“I would recommend that election officials ensure that they are well versed in the statutes that govern ability to carry firearms into the polls, that election officials have communication lines established with law enforcement, have protocols for reaction to potentially volatile situations, and ensure that poll workers are provided with the tools that they need to maintain a safe polling place,” Patrick said.

For the 2012 presidential election, Fairfax County, Virginia provided all poll workers with an extensive polling place operations bookletthat provided a good guide for how to deal with just about any situation.

“…[A]ll safety procedures were all done in house by the excellent Fairfax elections staff. Some, such as the alternative polling places, and some of the EO training materials, went back at least to the year following the sniper attacks in D.C.; some, such as the EDay move into the alternative emergency operations center, and the backup location for that, were done for 2012, just in recognition that being in the DC area, something could occur on EDay and we probably wouldn’t have time to plan everything on the fly,” said Cameron Quinn, former director of elections for Fairfax County.  

Quinn added that in some cases, other Fairfax County staff such as emergency operations and police assisted in planning, drafting or reviewing staff-prepared materials

In 2007 the U.S. Election Assistance Commission released a series of poll worker best practices, but none of the best practices addressed how to deal with an event such as an active shooter.

“EAC is working to update its poll worker recruitment and training information as well as polling place management best practices, that will certainly be a topic for us to address with these updates,” said EAC Commissioner Mathew Masterson.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has an incredible amount of information available on its website for how to prepare for an active shooter-type situation. While all the information on the page wouldn’t necessarily apply to elections/polling places, the department’s Active Shooter Preparedness page is worth a look for elections officials. There is information about training programs, an independent study course, a webinar and a series of resource materials.

Securing the polling places is just one aspect of Election Day preparedness though. Assuring voters that the polls are safe place to visit is another. Patrick said that while it’s always important to be cognizant of your surroundings and be watchful, voters shouldn’t let fear govern their actions. That being said, they should be aware of their voting options if they are concerned.

Scarpello and his staff are hard at work both ensuring the safety of the polls and assuring voters of their safety.

“We will do everything in our power to make voting safe at the polls on Election Day,” Scarpello said. “However, if a voter is uncomfortable coming to the polls on that day, I would encourage them to consider voting early at one of our early voting sites, or to request a mail ballot and vote from home.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the community spent lots of time planning for extreme weather and other natural disasters; these kinds of events suggest that we need to think the supposedly unthinkable and plan for man-made disasters as well. Thanks to Mindy and everyone else for their contributions to this piece.

NOTE: Special condolences go out to the family and friends of former San Bernardino County election staffer Aurora Godoy, who was one of those killed in last week’s attack. In addition, Clerk Scarpello shared this message via electionlineWeekly:

Since the tragic events that took place here in San Bernardino last week, our office has received many messages from colleagues from around the State and around the country expressing their concerns for our County employees. All of us here in San Bernardino appreciate those thoughts and prayers and would like to thank those colleagues for thinking of us during these trying times.

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