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How Polling Places Can Prepare for Potential Election-Season Violence

Host organizations should have an emergency plan to protect their facilities and occupants in case a group gathers elsewhere and approaches the area.

In a few months, millions of Americans will exercise their right to vote by going to a polling location in their voting district. In a long-held tradition, easily accessible buildings such as churches, schools and community centers will open their doors to the public, most for 13 hours or more. These locations are already on heightened alert for violent attacks and the addition of a polling center makes them even more vulnerable.

Election Day is not only a celebration of our democracy, but a growing security challenge. There is increasing distrust of the institutions responsible for organizing elections and resolving disputes, as well as a rise in mis-, dis- and malinformation (MDM) surrounding the process.

Now factor in a contentious election cycle, with passionate voters and many significant “hot-button” issues. And we can’t forget terrorist groups (both international and domestic) who seek opportunities to impact an election or, at the very least, get wide press coverage through an attack. Some polling locations recognize the increased risk of violence and are asking county election officials to search for alternate voting sites. But this is not easy, as the relocation of voting machines merely transfers the risk to another, equally vulnerable public location.

Trends: Rising Election-Related Violence

Security plans should be informed not only by understanding the threat, but examining trends. For instance, in 2020, violent encounters between voters were reported in 54 percent of elections worldwide, more than any year in the past four decades. In the United States, a study of election-related violence found physical violence is the most prevalent type of aggression leading up to polling day, followed by threats (mostly on social media), voter intimidation, and vandalism.

Incidents tended to rise sharply in October as the election date approached and tensions mounted. Fortunately, Election Day 2020 was relatively calm in the U.S. despite concerns; most experts believe this was due to extensive planning and preparation. For example, Chicago had a 10-day “preparedness plan” with extra law enforcement and hundreds of heavy trucks ready to serve as barricades to protect neighborhoods and business corridors from election-related violence. This posture was a form of hardening and may have served as a deterrent to would-be bad actors.

However, the 2020 election was not certified for 2 months and was heavily contested. Violent protests erupted at recount sites around the country. Election officials received death threats, were stalked, and experienced vandalism of their vehicles and homes; as a result, 1 in 3 election officials now report feeling unsafe because of their job. Election-related violence peaked with the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol building. It is possible that residual anger from the 2020 election could resurface later this year when we head back to the polls.

Mitigation Tactics

There are steps election officials and polling locations can take to better prepare, plan and deter violence.

Communicate with voters. The public should play a role in keeping the polling place safe. Messages sent prior to Election Day regarding what voters should expect at the polling location are key. Officials should use strong language regarding security procedures – for instance, “No bags will be allowed inside the polling location.”

Use layered security around the voting area. Security doesn’t start at the front door. Since the goal is to deter a would-be bad actor from approaching, it is recommended that there be a security presence in the form of a police officer, contracted security or even just a parked security vehicle or two on the perimeter. However, some states and counties have outlawed this practice at polling locations since it could be seen as a form of intimidation. In these situations, an alternative could be to gather a group of volunteers from the community to facilitate the orderly movement of voters into and out of the polls.

In addition to maintaining a steady flow of people, they could monitor the area for any indication of trouble. Volunteers should be easy to identify, such as with the use of reflective safety vests. They should have training in identifying concerning situations and should know how to report such events. Using free crisis communication and two-way radio apps is also highly recommended. Have volunteers complete training, for example the free online Stop the Bleed course. The key to the success of a voluntary approach is to ensure that it is not seen as voter intimidation. Volunteers cannot be seen as bringing personal or political agendas to the poll and any contrary behavior must be addressed immediately. Meet for a few hours on location the weekend before Election Day. A simple solution!

Access control is a must. If they choose to stay open, many schools, churches and community centers could be conducting regular activities during polling, mixing facility users with the voting public. Start with signage indicating specific parking areas for voters, separate from facility users. Parking on voting day can be chaotic, so remember fire lanes must be kept open in case of an emergency. Cones, ropes, or even chairs will work to keep the area directly in front of the buildings open. Additional traffic can be a serious issue in areas with pedestrians, especially the elderly and children, so create and maintain safe walkways. Volunteers should control the parking area and adjacent crosswalks to assist with pedestrian and vehicle flow.

Control where voters can go. Voters should not be able to roam the property or access the entire building. There should be one clearly marked entry and exit for voters and enough staff at the location to ensure crowd control. Remember, groups are vulnerable to attack. Avoid allowing long lines to form on sidewalks or near roads. Move the queue out of the line of sight of passersby and vehicles, if possible.

Prepare for the worst. Rallies and protests driven by political, economic, religious, environmental and social issues can be flashpoints for violence. Although these activities are not permitted near polling places, host organizations should have an emergency plan to protect their facilities and occupants in case a group gathers elsewhere and approaches the area.

Have a plan to manage threats. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides outstanding bomb threat response guidance. Immediate evacuation might not be the best course of action, as flushing people out of a sound building into the parking lot and streets could actually expose them to increased danger. Rethink bomb threat response and have a plan for threats called in, written or placed on social media.

CISA is asking state and local election officials who operate polling facilities to Connect, Plan, Train, and Report. They encourage the early partnering of officials and the site leadership; this proactive approach can go a long way toward preparing for Election Day. The local CISA Protective Security Advisor is always available to support security efforts at polling places and all public locations.

You have the right to ask your voting location and local officials about the security plan for Election Day. If you identify vulnerabilities when voting, you should bring them to the attention of polling site personnel.

As we’ve witnessed with recent mass shootings, no town, city, state or region is immune from acts of violence. Remain alert and unapologetically  report your concerns – you could save lives.

Jennifer Hesterman
Jennifer Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel, counterterrorism expert and consultant to operational technology cybersecurity consulting firm ABS Group. She is also an award-winning author, instructor and practitioner. After retiring in 2007, she started work as a private contractor in Washington, D.C., studying international and domestic terrorist organizations, transnational threats, organized crime and the terrorist and criminal exploitation of the Internet. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and advises the Homeland Security Training Institute at the College of DuPage in Chicago.

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