Local governments: Act now for Election Day

The federal Election Assistance Commission offers 7 key to-do items for local governments and election commissions

Meeting virtually through Zoom video conference as many legislative bodies and oversight panels are these days, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) held a listening session in April with state election officials and others just as governors began announcing plans to rescind ‘stay at home’ orders.

EAC Commissioner Thomas Six said two weeks after the Wisconsin primary there were reports of election workers and voters showing signs of contracting coronavirus. With an incubation of about two weeks, “it’s important to make sure that upcoming elections will be safe for voters and staff.”

The following 7 key takeaways can help local governments start preparing now for the election process changes needed later this year.

In this March 10, 2020, photo wearing gloves, a King County Election worker collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary in Seattle. Washington is a vote by mail state. Image: AP Photo/John Froschauer
In this March 10, 2020, photo wearing gloves, a King County Election worker collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary in Seattle. Washington is a vote by mail state. Image: AP Photo/John Froschauer

#1 Pursue vote by mail

Illinois State Board of Elections Executive Director Steve Sandvoss stressed that communication with voters to set expectations was critical. The electorate could access social media channels so long as local election officials were prepared to engage that way.

Delaware State Election Commissioner Anthony Albence counseled patience and humility. “If you don't know something, ask don't assume because it's much easier to prepare, of course, then try to fix a problem on the back end.”

Nevertheless, polling places may look a little different this year.

Kevin Runbeck is CEO of Runbeck Election Services, and election support company that prints ballots, handles inbound and outbound processing and voter registration services. “Now with states and counties that have a higher risk for COVID, and maybe higher volumes, you're going to have to aggressively pursue vote by mail either as a county wide event, or as a hybrid event.”

Jasen Kunz with the U.S. Public Health Service working out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer to take on needs for polling places given the half-life for the virus on different surfaces. For example, the virus can survive on paper for hours, banknotes for four days and harder services like stainless steel or plastic up to a week.

So that's why it's real critical for the disinfection routine of those frequently touched surfaces," Kunz said.

Consider all the items at polling places and other facilities needed regular disinfectant such as:

  • tables
  • doorknobs
  • light switches
  • handles
  • desks
  • toilets
  • faucets
  • pens
  • voting machines
  • laptops
  • tablets
  • keyboards

Bay County, Florida, Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen reminded commissioners that officials and voters could use their experiences from dealing with natural disasters. That is also copy getting factor for registrants and tracking. “I know there's people in our county right now still don't have their houses.” Voter anxiety is not just about health, either. “They still don't have the same address. Their address is different. We they're worried about mailing a ballot, will they get to the right address or will the address change before we get to the election?”

#2 Look to automate absentee voting registration

EAC Vice Chair Palmer was concerned about online applications and how voters justify absentee requests, since “even in every presidential election year, you're going to have an avalanche of requests and absentee ballots.”

States could see an uptick from a normal election-year rate of 5% to as much as 50%.

Albence said that while his state was upgrading systems, pre-filling forms and automation “saves a huge amount of time” on data entry and accuracy. He suggested a complete automation beginning with online applications and voter portals from which data can be sent directly to elections offices prefilled.

Among the challenges facing Runbeck and companies like his are that trucks can only carry so many mail packets, and the manufacturing for millions of dollars worth of paper into envelopes, ballots and instruction inserts. “So warehousing is a huge problem,” calling mail packets “our choke point” which can be eased by intelligent insertion. Larger jurisdictions will have to adjust up.

Readiness for unprecedented vote by mail varies. About 24% of ballots nationwide were cast by mail, but doubling that worries Wyman, who said “the more heavy that lift is going to be” for states with less capacity for handling mail.

#3 Start working with your local postmaster

Albence advises immediately building rapport with your local postmaster now in what he called “a two way street” so they know what to expect given the heightened demand and constraints of their own, urging that “you're coming up on the radar and that it's not just a one-time contact a couple days before election day.”

Albence advises peers around the nation to fully engage the Postal Service. For example, mail piece design analysis is essential. “When you design any new products, whether that be your vote by mail products or even your traditional absentee or regular mailing envelopes.”

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told EAC Commissioners that capacity is a major concern both in stock and in throughput. States with higher absentee voting participation may be better off, but capacity was crucial because even “on the back end, once we actually got those ballots in the mail, you had to have the processing capacity in place for your ballots to come in.

Intelligent barcodes, needed accounts and proper software can go a long way towards assuring accurate outbound pieces go where they should.

Maintaining a strong relationship with your state DMV will also go a long way, even though many were shut down under pandemic-related executive orders. State motor vehicle departments are the main source of registrations around the nation.

EAC Acting Executive Director Mona Harrington updated the commission that while all state requests are still being reviewed, more than 75% of states anticipate higher print costs because of expanded vote by mail needs.

#4 Secure suppliers and vendors early for the 2020 election

Securing suppliers and vendors should be done sooner in 2020 than usual. “We cannot gear up, we cannot build equipment fast enough if you wait until July to place your order,” Runbeck said, partially since the Postal Service needs to approve envelope designs for vote by mail. “That is a choke point across the industry and everybody waits to the last minute.”

The lead times for needed equipment are long since equipment is often built to specification, Albence told Commissioners, advising peers to get their orders in now for high speed scanners. Same goes for sanitation stock.

Digitizing signatures can go a long way towards processing since looking up individual voter registration cards significantly slows processing time. Runbeck informed the Commission that his company can handle ballots vote by mail packets for about 10% of the electorate.

“One size does not fit all and there's going to be a lot of systems that are going to be adapted, simply out of need, because there's nothing else we can do with the time allotted,” he advised.

#5 Get ahead on Election Day staffing

Many volunteers counted upon the past election years may choose not to participate out of concern for the health, so “getting that temporary labor pool set up ahead of time is going to be critical,” Said Runbeck.

Albence is advising Delaware officials to enhance their staffing “earlier than normal” so they are “acclimated and oriented earlier” in election season and “oriented to the process.    

The vote processing workforce may be available for one or two months, but preparing personnel will take time in advance given all the variables. Wyman said she envisions the biggest local election volunteer recruiting effort since World War II.

#6 Review voting machine vendors cybersecurity practices

Controls can be built-in for vote by mail processing the design and implementation must come first, and early for states ramping up the capacity and supply chains to process perhaps hundreds of thousands of absentee or vote by mail ballots.

“They're going to need tabulation equipment that can actually count ballots in a faster manner. And whether or not that is even existing right now six months away from the election in the supply chain is that is a concern,” Wyman testified.

Runbeck says to do your homework on vendors, since automation, data transmission and storage are key vulnerabilities. “The worst thing we can do is send out about it's the wrong style to a voter and they don't know that they have a problem.” Even for paper he says his staff works for “100% accuracy before anything leaves the building.”

Also key is maintaining contacts with the state election board and assure theirs with the Department of Homeland Security, whose Science and Technology Directorate and FBI focused resources in recent cycles.

#7 Be ready for federal voting legislation ahead of election

Congress or the statehouses could produce legislation impacting on how voters can vote or expand vote by mail. In the meantime, election officials must wait and see but be ready for contingencies.

Participants advised doing as much as you can with as much information as possible with just six months left until November. “If you gain the confidence of your voters and you gain the positive environment that you're both trying to go to, that you have a better chance of reaching that goal.”

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