Election Day: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The only thing that's predictable is unpredictability. For the people who run elections, it's never too late to take inventory.
November 7, 2016
By Paul S. DeGregorio  |  Contributor
Former chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and a senior fellow at the Democracy Fund

"Sir, we think she is dead. She is slumped over and we can't wake her." "Who are you talking about?" I asked. "The poll worker," said the panicked women on the phone. I immediately responded, "Hang up and call 911." This happened to me one election day: A 94-year-old who had served for over 50 years as a dedicated poll worker had indeed passed away, and I had to call her family about it.

My personal experiences as an election official in this country, and in assessing elections in 35 other countries, are mostly wonderful, but there were occasions where people and events were completely unexpected. While most Americans are asleep early tomorrow morning, local election officials will likely have already dealt with three or four problems: poll workers calling in sick, someone's alarm not waking them, the wrong ballots at the wrong polling place.

The question for every election official is: How can you be prepared to make the unexpected the expected? The people who run elections have been thinking about that question for months, of course. But it can't hurt to take a last-minute inventory. Here's my checklist:

Prepare for public calls and web traffic: Everyone is going to want information or an answer. Voters will want to know where their polling places are, if they are registered and, soon after the polls close, the results of the voting.

You must ensure you have enough phones and that your website can handle the traffic of a presidential election. Contact your service providers so you understand your capacity and have them ready to increase it on a moment's notice. When voters are on hold, have a message that directs them to your website for the information they need. And have dedicated numbers just for your poll workers and enough capacity to answer those calls promptly and to prioritize problems. This is a frequent complaint from poll workers, who often have a very angry voter standing in front of them.

Anticipate voting-equipment challenges: Most election equipment in the United States is growing old, and despite vigorous pre-election testing some of it will simply break down or jam. While poll workers should fix small problems, trained technicians should be ready to handle more serious onsite repairs and re-testing. This especially goes for counting equipment.

And triple-check that there are enough paper ballots and/or paper rolls for your paper-trail electronic voting devices. There are too many stories of polling places running out of backup paper ballots. Have enough backup materials and roving election deputies and staff who can get to a polling place quickly and solve problems on the spot.

Secure essentials like power and water: Lights and power can (and do) go out at a polling place. Roofs leak unexpectedly. Have a disaster plan ready and portable lighting and other provisions, such as bottled water, on hand to be taken to a polling place. Be flexible if there's a clear need to move rooms or a polling place on a moment's notice.

Have abundant parking -- and peacekeeping: Polling places with thousands of assigned voters will see a traffic jam or two. Check your largest polling places to ensure there are no plans to repave the parking lot or nearby streets on election day (yes, this has happened). Have dedicated parking spots for voters and plenty of signs.

While law-enforcement officers should never interfere in the election or show any hint of intimidation, they can be your best friends on election day should you have a serious problem or need something delivered as soon as possible. Tensions run high, and fights can break out between partisans inside and outside polling places. Have a conversation with the police chief ahead of time and have a phone number handy.

Voters can also become angry if they perceive a problem in the voting process: No one should be turned away without being offered a provisional ballot. No one.

Be ready to recount: Plan your election day like it's the 2000 election all over. Make sure that everything -- and I mean everything -- is accounted for and secure under lock and key with bipartisan controls. Have procedures in place for a written record of every complaint received. Lawyers will ask to see every piece of paper, every call log, every ballot and every piece of software and hardware.

Be ready to process absentee and early ballots as soon as you're legally allowed. Any delay in the results will bring increased scrutiny, along with criticism by the public and the media.

Employ transparency as a shield: Where possible and permitted, let any and all observers see the election process. Be patient with skeptics and answer questions in great detail. Put up a webcam and show the world your ballot-counting. Let the media see what you do on election day and the days after to audit and account for every vote. America's democracy should have nothing to hide.

I did attend the funeral of that poll worker who died on election day. I thanked her family for the 50 years of service she gave, for the thousands of voters she served, and for making democracy work in my county, my state and my country. Her passing was a crucial reminder of the human element of our election system and our need to be open to the experience, even when things are unpredictable.