By Tom Westphal
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is profoundly disrupting many aspects of American life, including a fundamental pillar of our government: democratic elections. Many states have postponed their presidential primaries, and election officials across the country are scrambling to ensure the presidential election in November can be held as planned.
Election officials face significant challenges in preparing for the 2020 presidential election in light of the coronavirus pandemic. To overcome these challenges, state and local officials are already turning to unlikely sources, including the National Guard. But even such unprecedented efforts may not be enough to mitigate the full effects of the pandemic. Therefore, it is conceivable that state and local election officials may request additional support from the U.S. Army Reserve. This article describes how U.S. Army Reserve Civil Affairs units can anticipate and prepare for such activities, to provide the best possible support to state and local election officials during a critical time for our country’s democratic institutions.
Understanding the Problem
The coronavirus pandemic poses a unique challenge to our electoral system. Elections vary significantly from state-to-state, but historically most people in the country have voted in-person, traveling to their local polling place to cast their ballot. These in-person polling places often feature crowded lines and require many people to touch shared surfaces, such as voting machines or polling booths, and therefore may be fertile ground for spreading the disease. In response, many advocates are calling for a massive expansion of voting-by-mail.
But such expansion brings its own challenges. Vote-by-mail processes are more complex than many people realize, requiring significant investments in time and resources. Many states currently only offer limited vote-by-mail options. Standing up entirely new processes, ordering new equipment, and familiarizing voters with new procedures is a colossal undertaking. Another key concern is the potential shortage of automated equipment. In vote-by-mail systems, election agencies often use automated mail sorters, digital scanners, envelope extractors, and signature verification technology to help process returned ballots. Such equipment can process ballots in a fraction of the time it would take to do so manually. But with every election agency in the country scrambling to procure automated equipment, manufacturers might not be able to produce enough machines to meet the surging demand.
If vote-by-mail processes cannot be fully implemented by Election Day, states may need to continue to offer in-person voting options. But this may also prove impossible. Finding reliable, qualified temporary workers can be prohibitively expensive and is often difficult, even in “normal” election years. In 2016, a U.S. Election Assistance Commission survey found that two-thirds of America’s local jurisdictions were unable to recruit enough poll workers for Election Day—up from half of all jurisdictions in 2012 and 2008. Additionally, workers may shy away from such jobs because of health risks. In Florida’s March primary, for example, about 8% of the expected 4,800 poll workers did not show up in Miami-Dade County, forcing some polling places to open late and disrupting voting for some voters.
Election officials, therefore, may find themselves unable to quickly transition to vote-by-mail or hire large numbers of temporary workers willing to staff in-person polling places. These two dynamics drive a foreseeable gap in needed resources to effectively carry out the election.
During their April 7th primary election, Wisconsin election officials faced this exact scenario. Election officials scrambled to expand vote-by-mail options but were not able to meet demand. A statewide shortage of nearly 7,000 poll workers threw the election into chaos, as workers quit in droves due to coronavirus fears. In response, the Wisconsin Governor issued a last-minute mobilization of 2,400 National Guardsman to serve as emergency poll workers: the first time in American history that National Guard Soldiers have done so.
Despite this innovative measure, Wisconsin’s election was still chaotic. Even the Guard’s mobilization fell far short of the need for poll workers, failing, for example, to prevent 97% of Milwaukee’s polling sites from closing. The Guard’s last-minute mobilization exacerbated this resource gap. Taken by surprise, election officials said there was not enough time to train and “integrate members of the National Guard into the operations of [their] polling sites.”
Wisconsin’s case demonstrates that even taking innovative measures, like calling out the Guard, might not be enough to ensure our elections function properly. The Army Reserves is already involved in other aspects of the coronavirus response, though currently, these efforts are largely limited to medical personnel. It is entirely possible that these efforts may be extended to providing direct assistance to state and local election officials in November. Army Reserve units—particularly units with special focus and expertise in assisting civilian authorities, such as Civil Affairs units—should anticipate and prepare for such orders.
The following section explores why Army Reservists may be asked to provide assistance to state and local election authorities in the coming months. The rest of this article strives to provide useful guidance to unit commanders preparing for such potential orders, including laying out planning considerations and brainstorming potential roles for Army Reservists.
The COVID pandemic is currently disrupting the American electoral process.
Enclosed spaces requiring frequent interaction with shared surfaces—conditions present in polling locations—increase the risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19; this can only be partially mitigated through the implementation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
The COVID pandemic will have persistent effects through early November 2020. These effects may be continuous or may return unexpectedly right before the election.
State and local election authorities will be unable to mitigate the full impact of COVID on the electoral process, either because they are unable to operationalize new automation equipment or because they are unable to hire the required number of temporary staff needed to conduct polling center operations.
Legal. There are significant legal constraints on what type of assistance the Army Reserves can provide, even beyond the normal boundaries of Defense Support to Civil Authorities: U.S. law prohibits federal military personnel from being present at polling places (18 U.S.C. § 592). This restriction does not apply to National Guard troops mobilized under the control of a state governor, but they do apply to Army Reserve personnel.
Civilian Control. As is standard in Defense Support to Civil Authorities operations, U.S. Army Reserve personnel assisting in U.S. elections would be subordinated to appropriate civilian authorities, including state and local election officials, and take no actions not specifically requested by such authorities. The Wisconsin National Guard’s involvement could serve as a good working model, deploying personnel in civilian clothes and working under the supervision and oversight of county election officials.