Mercer County, PA Ham Radio Operators to Assist With Election Day Communications

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Pennsylvania’s Mercer County will use amateur radio operators for today’s primary election to assist with election communications in a polling location with no landline and spotty cell service. The Sharon Herald has more:

Mercer County Voter Registration and Election Bureau is trying to make waves — radio waves, that is — in the hopes of making today’s election run a little more smoothly.

The county plans to employ amateur radio operators to keep communications open by transmitting to and from the polling site at Milledgeville Community Christian Church on Sandy Lake Road and the election bureau in the Mercer County Courthouse.

Jeff Greenburg, election bureau director, said radio transmissions will serve as the main communication to and from the closed church, which does not have a land-line telephone.

“I see this … as more of an opportunity to test the county’s emergency response capabilities in the event that we would lose communications in a precinct,” Greenburg said.

The project was inspired partly by the uncertain cell service in the community and partly by the cost of installing landlines:

Greenburg said the county started looking into using radios after the price of installing temporary land lines spiked last fall. The cost ballooned from $50 to more than $200.

“It was sticker shock,” he said.

With cell phone coverage spotty in the township, Greenburg said radios provided a viable alternative to communicate with the polling site.

Several organizations – the Mercer County Amateur Radio Club, Auxiliary Communication Services, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services and Amateur Radio Emergency Services –are providing operators for Election Day.

Group liaison Mike Varga said amateur radio operators will work three-hour shifts scheduled at the church throughout the day before polls open and after they close.

He said the radio operators see this as a way to give back to the county.

Varga already checked out the site.

“I tested the communications there,” he said.

Other operators will man equipment stationed in the Mercer County Courthouse to receive and send messages. Greenburg said the radio would likely be in the courthouse’s assembly room due to a lack of space in the election department. The assembly room is on the courthouse’s ground floor across from the election office.

Varga said the system will use two repeaters.

“We will transmit from the church,” he said. “A radio, called a repeater, will hear the signal. Then, it will transmit it on another frequency. The listening ham will hear that signal. It works the same in the other direction.”

The election office notes that the radio link is not the primary communication method with the polling place but rather a redundant backup:

Varga said the process has a purpose.

“We like a lot of redundancy,” he said.

Greenburg pointed out the county previously partnered in 2014 with amateur radio operators to assist health agencies to provide flu shots as part of a pandemic drill. Because of the communication volunteers, Greenburg said there were no problems reaching the areas where health care providers gave shots.

“They were able to communicate back and forth,” he said.

Frank Jannetti, Mercer County public safety director, said his office would call on the radio operators if emergency services communications malfunction. He said working with them, including during the 2014 pandemic drills, was one reason the county asked them to help out in the primary.

“That’s why I suggested the county use them,” Jannetti said.

The County isn’t sure if it will use the radios for the presidential elections but could very well return to them afterwards:

Greenburg said the county will probably use the temporarily landlines instead of radios in the 2020 primary and general elections because of the expectation for increased turnout in the presidential races.

The following year could be a different story.

“I can see it in 2021,” Greenburg said.

This effort is an excellent example of the various ways local election officials are working to overcome communication challenges in their communities and seeking opportunities to bring redundancy into their Election Day operations. Kudos to Mercer County for leveraging their local ham radio community; I’ll be curious to see if other communities have already done – or might be considering – the same thing.

Stay tuned … literally!

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