Tammy Patrick on “Election Day Command Centers: A National Snapshot”

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This week’s electionlineWeekly features a story by the Democracy Fund’s Tammy Patrick about her new report, “Election Day Command Centers: A National Snapshot”, spotlighting the role these centers play in helping to ensure a smooth voting experience for voters and election offices alike. Take a look:

Calls in queue, busy signals, or, worse yet, the phones not ringing—Election Day hotlines and command centers serve as the nexus of all election administrative communication and logistics. In my decade as a local election official, I worked with colleagues to create a way of capturing real-time information from numerous sources, take action on what could be done to remedy situations, and document the resolution for post-election analysis.

Election offices take a variety of paths to improve their ability to keep tabs on polling locations and field efforts including homegrown reporting systems, existing government networks, commercial-off-the-shelf programs, and vendor solutions are some of the most common methods. While at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Senior Policy Analyst Michael Thorning and I spent quite a bit of time in the field interviewing election officials to identify strategies and issue a preliminary report; this week the full white paper – Election Day Command Centers: A National Snapshot – is being released with the hopes that there will be ideas in it that officials can leverage to improve their own data collection and responsiveness in this crucial election year.

As the primary season unfolds, election officials should contemplate how their own system operates and if it can withstand the pressures through November. Outlined below are my top five recommendations: 

1. Expand Communications
Expanding the number of ways workers can communicate increases productivity as it decreases time spent waiting on hold or being greeted by a busy signal. This could include providing more than a single phone number for use by voters and pollworkers, or allowing workers in the field to communicate via text messages and emails on Election Day.  Richland County, South Carolina, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina are two examples of jurisdictions using practices like these. As a result, a simple text that includes the preset or predetermined polling location description – such as the precinct name or number – and “open” or “issue” can provide notice to the command center. Additional information such as “issue—long line” or “issue—equipment” help inform the appropriate actions.

2. Triage and Prioritize Incoming Issues
Establishing different hotlines for the various reasons for calls coming in is another common practice. For example, jurisdictions like the City of Chicago have a designated line for language assistance, ensuring voters get their language of choice first. When establishing hotlines it is important to prioritize reports that are action items, particularly those that most impact voters, and provide notification to the individuals who are responsible for, and able to, take that action. One key element to keeping the critical elements in focus is to allow for the closure of issues that are resolved and can then be archived for post-election review.      

3. Create Troubleshooting Guide for Common Challenges
Providing pollworkers and field rovers with troubleshooting guides, and walking through the use of those guides in training, can lower the number of calls coming in when the battery on the machine runs low because it was not ever plugged in, for example. Highlighting the most prevalent issues before they happen is your best defense.

4. Test Your System to Gauge Capacity
We anticipate, and have seen, extreme enthusiasm resulting in increased turnout this year. We have experienced many changes in how elections are conducted with expansions in early voting, removal of need for excuses to vote by mail, and millions more voters on the rolls because of automatic voter registration. Yes, there is an increase in first-time voters, but even experienced voters and pollworkers may deal with new systems or processes this year. Call volumes increase from workers when they use new systems and protocols, and perform new tasks. Command centers need to adapt to accommodate as well.

5. Establish Mass Messaging Protocol
Ensuring there is a strong messaging protocol in place is crucial—checking the messaging functions of electronic pollbooks, compiling a list of cell phone numbers, or providing phone and tablets for pollworkers and field rovers can provide much needed clarity in the field. Election officials make checklists, have contingency plans, and go through tabletop exercises to contemplate various injects of catastrophic proportions. Still, things happen that are missed or unforeseen. This could include sending a message to all polling locations that the provisional forms were packed in the blue bin instead of the red bin in error, sending a notice on how to handle a withdrawn candidate or that the courts have required the polls remain open an hour later—thus preventing separate phone calls from every polling place, and ensuring voters get uniform information in a timely manner.

I often say that every election has a story to tell, and we often don’t know that what story is until long after the last ballot is cast and counted. A robust command center operation serves to not only capture the data to tell the story accurately, but, when fully functioning can improve the American voting experience by remedying issues that arise in a timely manner. The good news is that there are resources to help.

While election officials can and do plan extensively for Election Day, it’s inevitable that issues will arise once voters start showing up at the polls. Command centers help communities manage those issues – and also generate real-time information that is valuable not just in the moment but longer-term as election administrators try to stay ahead of potential problems on future Election Days. Thanks as always to electionline for sharing this report – and of course to Tammy for her leadership on this and so many other issues in the field. Be safe out there and stay tuned …

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