Poll Workers Are Hoping For Calm But Preparing For The Worst

Oct 19, 2016
Originally published on October 19, 2016 11:35 am

At a hearing last month on the possible hacking of voting machines, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said he was more worried about something else. The real threat on Election Day, said Schedler, is violence at the polls.

Poll workers across the country are on high alert after the recent firebombing of a Republican Party headquarters in North Carolina and reports that two armed men lingered for hours outside a Democratic campaign office in Virginia. Some feel that Donald Trump's claim that the election is rigged, and his suggestion that supporters and their friends go to polling places to "watch," are rhetorical time bombs.

"You know, it's unfortunate that we have to do this, but we want to be overly prepared," said Amber McReynolds, the director of elections for the city and county of Denver. "We have added in an active shooter training into our election judge training."

McReynolds says she wants poll workers to be prepared to handle any scenario in a calm and responsive way. They also have a central hotline they can use to report any problems, and which allows her office to track what's going on throughout the city on Election Day.

"And if we need to mobilize the police department or another emergency response team, we can do that pretty easily," she said.

Matt Masterson is on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that works with state and local election offices. He says almost every jurisdiction has a detailed plan for voting place emergencies. Many of those plans were beefed up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which occurred on a primary election day in New York City. With the tone of the current election, Masterson thinks those plans are now getting extra attention.

"My guess is many election officials, they've gone back, rechecked them, made sure that their poll workers are trained on exactly how to handle any kind of escalation of conversation in the polling places," said Masterson. "They know exactly who to call and when to call when something happens."

He says one way to avoid Election Day confrontations is to make sure that everyone — including poll workers, candidates and outside monitors — knows the rules in advance. For example, can voters carry guns into polling stations? In many places, that's strictly prohibited, but not in some open-carry states.

Schedler said this week that it's a difficult balance for election officials — making voters feel safe, but also welcome.

"I'll have people ask, 'Well are you going to have a sheriff's deputy at every precinct?' No. I just, you know, the sight of an individual there, standing there with a gun, to me is just something that you shouldn't have to experience typically as a voter."

He says most times, confrontations can be easily handled by polite but firm poll workers.

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As Americans vote this fall, U.S. election officials are watching for possible disruptions, even violence. Their concerns were heightened over the weekend with the firebombing of a Republican Party headquarters in North Carolina and reports that two armed men lingered for hours outside a Democratic campaign office in Virginia. Election authorities say they do not expect any problems, but they're preparing. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: At a hearing last month on the possible hacking of voting machines, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said he was more worried about something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM SCHEDLER: And quite frankly, the bigger threat to me on Election Day would be something of physical harm or physical threat that someone could easily put forth. To me, that would be something that all of us should be concerned about.

FESSLER: And many people are, in light of the hostile tone of the current presidential race. Denver's election director Amber McReynolds says her office has always had contingency plans to deal with Election Day emergencies, such as power outages and storms. But this year, they've added something new.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: You know, it's unfortunate that we have to do this, but we want to be overly prepared. But we have added in an active shooter training into our election judge training.

FESSLER: McReynolds says she wants poll workers to be prepared to handle any scenario in a calm and responsive way. They also have a central hotline they can use to report any problems and which allows her office to track what's going on throughout the city on Election Day.

MCREYNOLDS: And if we need to mobilize the police department or another emergency response team, we can do that pretty easily.

FESSLER: She says that's because her office meets regularly with other city agencies prior to an election to coordinate plans.

MATT MASTERSON: This has been a regular conversation for election officials for years.

FESSLER: Matt Masterson is on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that works with state and local election offices. He says almost every jurisdiction has a detailed plan to deal with voting place emergencies. Many of those plans were beefed up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which occurred on what was supposed to be a primary election day in New York City. Masterson thinks those plans are now getting some extra attention.

MASTERSON: My guess is many election officials, they've gone back, rechecked them, made sure that their poll workers are trained on exactly how to handle any kind of escalation of conversation in the polling places and making sure that those contact lists are prominent. They know exactly who to call and when to call them when something happens.

FESSLER: He says one of the best ways to avoid Election Day confrontations is to make sure that everyone, including poll workers, candidates at outside monitors, knows the rules in advance, like what election monitors are and are not allowed to do at the polls and even whether or not voters can carry guns. In many places that's strictly prohibited, but not in open-carry states such as New Hampshire. Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said this week that it's a difficult balance for election officials trying to make voters feel safe at the polls but also welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHEDLER: I've had people ask, well, are you going to have a sheriff's deputy at every precinct. No. I just - you know, the sight of an individual that's standing in there with a gun, to me, is just something that you shouldn't have to experience typically as a voter.

FESSLER: And he doesn't really think it's necessary. He says most times, confrontations can be easily handled by polite but firm poll workers. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.