Local officials join election task force to prepare for the worst

March 17, 2013

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s pre-Election Day strike, a task force of election officials will pool their knowledge to prepare for the worst and keep the polls open.

The task force, assembled by the National Association of Secretaries of State, is expected to release guidelines early next year on how best to respond to emergencies. The group, which includes officials from the District, Maryland and Virginia, will hold its first conference call on Tuesday.

Though the Washington area was spared the worst of Sandy, the storm served as a wake-up call for vote counters from the Mid-Atlantic to New England.

“We’ve been through earthquakes here, we’ve been through storms . . . but what happened in New Jersey” was on a different scale, said Donald Palmer, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections.

More than 200 polling places in New York and New Jersey were shuttered or moved because of the storm, and many more had to be kept running by emergency power generators. New Jersey residents were given the option of applying for absentee ballots on Election Day and then casting them via e-mail or fax.

Closer to home, early voting was canceled for a day in Maryland (an extra day was added later), and the hours for in-person absentee voting were shifted at many locations in Virginia. But the election went smoothly in Garrett County in Western Maryland, even though nearly three feet of snow fell in parts of the county. Utilities kept the power on at early voting locations, said Linda Lamone, the administrator of Maryland’s Board of Elections.

Officials also need to plan for other types of disasters.

At the association’s winter meeting, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill referred to the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as the kind of tragedy that could affect an election just as easily as a tornado.

“I think everybody realized it’s not just a storm that we have to worry about,” Lamone said. “There are other things we need to plan for.”

Another challenge for election officials is finding people to staff polling locations during emergencies. But the task force won’t have to start from scratch because most states, and the District, have developed some guidelines.

Among other things, “we have a plan in place where if we have to relocate a polling place, we’ve identified what the next polling place would be,” said Clifford Tatum, the executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections.

In extreme cases, elections can be delayed, though state laws differ on how it can be done. Primary elections were postponed in Florida in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, in New York in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in Louisiana in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Lamone, who has held her post in Maryland since 1997, recalled how the 2002 sniper attacks in the D.C. area narrowly missed affecting an election. The shooters were arrested Oct. 24, less than two weeks before an Election Day that could have gone differently had they still been on the loose.

“People were afraid to buy gasoline,” Lamone said. “They were certainly not going to show up and vote.”

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