Thursday, September 12, 2013

Vague Threats and Real Disruptions

Nothing frightens election officials more than the lack of a Plan B.

In fact, whenever I'm asked about the potential for an outside force to illegally impact an election, I can rattle off reasons why I don't believe it's possible.

But, could someone disrupt the election?  Cause us to have a bad day?  Absolutely, and we game theory all the time about what-ifs.

However, as we saw during our February snowstorm smackdown during our election, contingency plans can only carry you so far.  Plans B, C, and D may be feel-good scenarios that explode.

In February, for instance, we confirmed with polling places on the Friday before the election that regardless of the weather, they'd be open, only to get calls from them on Monday telling us they would be closed.

So, my back arched with the news earlier this week that all of the Shawnee Mission schools closed after the district received a "vague threat."

Without knowing what school might be impacted, the District locked down all the schools.  That's understandable, but it would be devastating on election day.

What if a "vague threat," was politically motivated, designed to disrupt?  In fact, typing about it here is a bit like giving a potential criminal an idea by writing a good thriller reeking of espionage.  But, not confronting the problem directly seems worse.

We worry all the time about losing a polling place at the last minute.  What if we lost 30?  At 8 a.m.?

I think back to the couple of voters who ventured out in the blizzard in February to their old polling place and upset that a sign wasn't posted that the polling place moved.  They missed the point that the only way we would have been able to post such a sign would have been to dogsled to the locations through impassable roads, hoping to have the signs up before nightfall.

Imagine trying to move 40,000 voters (if we lost 30 locations) on the fly.  I never tried to imagine that until this week.  I'm still trying.

As election administrators, we try to make voting as easy as possible.  The world continually makes it as hard as possible.

We've been spending time in our office going through strategic planning efforts and have reflected much on our role regarding voter turnout.  There are two primary schools of thought:  a) we should do everything we can to raise turnout because that seems to be a noble concept inherent in our role, or b) we could unintentionally impact the results by emphasizing turnout efforts among a demographic (such as young voters) who may be more inclined to vote for one candidate or another.

I fall on the side that we should not strive for higher turnout.  I know that's a bit like saying I don't believe in gravity, but I think it's the best way to ensure neutrality.

But more and more, I feel our role is to be more than the advocate of the voter.   Better, I guess, to say that we must fight for the voter.

I feel like the walls are closing in (or shutting down) on our voters.  We can't run an election with polling places that might shut down, all at once, because of a phone call, no matter how remote that possibility seems.  But we can't keep paring down polling places.

We requested funding for staff members to be able to expand advance voting in light of these issues and that request was denied.  We've got to keep marching in that direction, though, perhaps at least seeking larger sites, if we can't have more sites.

Somewhere this week, I've now gone into aggressor mode, Voters vs. the World.  And if it's a fight the World wants, the World is going to lose.