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.
The Potential Role of the U.S. Army Reserves
If Reserve Soldiers are asked to assist election officials during the 2020 presidential election, they will be walking a delicate line. Elections, especially presidential elections, are by nature politically sensitive, and the involvement of federal personnel may exacerbate such tensions. Any Army Reserve involvement would need to be strictly limited to fulfilling state requests for emergency assistance, with Army Reserve Soldiers answering to and supervised by state and local election authorities.
With that principle in mind, there are several capabilities the Reserves could provide election officials if asked. While it is difficult to anticipate what specific resources may be requested by local and state officials, the Reserves could plausibly provide election support in the following ways:
Enabling National Guard support to polling operations. Though U.S. Army Reserve personnel are not allowed in polling places, National Guard Soldiers acting under state control are. Army Reserve personnel could provide logistical, material, or other types of support to National Guard units to allow them to maximize personnel available to work in polling places.
Voter language assistance. The federal Voting Rights Act requires state and local election officials to provide assistance for voters in languages other than English when there is a certain threshold of limited-English proficient voters in that area. Some states have similar laws extending these provisions. For example, federal law requires Los Angeles County to provide election materials and voter assistance in Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino (Tagalog), Hispanic, Korean, and Vietnamese. California law further requires Armenian, Bengali, and Farsi language assistance to be available in select parts of L.A. County. Army Reservists have significant foreign language capability and could provide this assistance by manning language hotlines similar to those sometimes operated by local election officials.
Logistical support to election officials. Army Reservist units often have a significant logistical capacity to transport election materials and have access to some personal protective gear. Assuming proper safeguards and accountability procedures can be arranged, these capabilities should be placed at the disposal of state and local election officials.
Personnel support for non-polling place missions. While Army Reservists cannot support polling place operations, they could provide manpower to support other election-related operations. This would be useful in local jurisdictions both to maximize the number of local government personnel available for polling place operations and to mitigate shortfalls in hiring temporary workers.
Concrete Actions to Take Now
While it is hard to anticipate the exact requirements, leaders should conduct planning in preparation for the call to assist state and local officials. Beyond normal readiness preparations, U.S. Army Reserve units can take the following immediate steps to prepare for such requests:
Inventory organic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) appropriate for wear in COVID conditions. Critical shortages of PPE across the country are a source of considerable anxiety for election officials. For Reservists to safely support civil authorities in pandemic conditions, they must have access to proper safety equipment. Excess equipment could be made available to election officials on a temporary basis, provided a reasonable accountability system could be implemented, and then equipment could be returned to federal control following the election.
Conduct a thorough review of non-English language proficiency of Soldiers in Reserve formations. As noted above, election officials often face major challenges in recruiting bilingual poll workers and translators able to assist voters with limited English proficiency as required by federal or state law. Commanders should immediately compile comprehensive lists of Soldiers who are highly proficient in other languages to anticipate election officials’ requests for non-English language support.
Though formal Army Human Resources records can form the baseline of such a review by telling Commanders which Soldiers have current Defense Language Proficiency scores on file (as officially recorded by DA Form 330s), these records are often underinclusive. For example, Soldiers sometimes do not take the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) for languages they speak if those languages do not pay a Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB). Additionally, state and local election officials may need personnel proficient in languages not tracked by the Department of Defense, including a wide variety of Native American languages. This review should, therefore, extend beyond what is captured in formal DOD records, requiring individualized and comprehensive inquiry into what language proficiencies exist throughout the Reserve force.
Dedicate training time to familiarize Reserve personnel with Defense Support to Civil Authorities activities. Elections are a particularly sensitive area of domestic politics, with states often resenting federal intrusion into their historically preeminent role in election administration. Additionally, while many Reservists are familiar with Army operations overseas, they may not be as familiar as Guardsmen when it comes to operations at home. Soldiers should be taught the nuances of Defense Support to Civil Authorities doctrine, with a special emphasis on respect for state and local authority. Accountability mechanisms should be designed to ensure Soldiers understand and retain key information.
Develop contacts with local National Guard authorities. Experienced officers know the time to develop relationships and channels of communication is before a crisis, not during it. Reserve officers should make an effort to contact local counterparts in the National Guard. Such relationships may pay dividends if Reserve units need to coordinate with Guardsman in their area.
Familiarize key unit personnel with how elections work. Election administration is far more complicated than many people realize. Providing key unit personnel, such as operations and planning staff, with an understanding of how elections actually function may prove invaluable to later planning efforts, and likely cannot be done in the hours and minutes leading up to an emergency mobilization.
The coronavirus pandemic poses a major challenge to the foundation of our democratic system: free and fair elections. Yet despite such challenges, the vote must go on. U.S. Army Reserve units, especially Civil Affairs units, should prepare now for potential requests to support state and local election officials. While one can hope that states will not need such a resource, failing to plan for the worst-case scenario recklessly gambles with the integrity of our democracy.
MAJ Tom Westphal is a U.S. Army Reserve Civil Affairs officer, currently serving as a Civil Affairs Planning Officer with the 351st Civil Affairs Command Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Before transferring to the reserves, he served eight years on active duty, holding various positions as a Civil Affairs officer with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), and as an Armor Officer with the 2d Infantry Division at Camp Red Cloud, Republic of Korea, and the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment. He has served as an official election observer in Ukraine, Tajikistan, and around the United States. He studies election law and voting rights at Stanford University.
[This article was adapted from a previous opinion piece by the author and Dr. Nate Persily, appearing here: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-to-save-the-election-call-in-the-national-guard-20200408-zuud3aiu4bfixnokwiseeugeu4-story.html]
The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Civil Affairs Association, 351st Civil Affairs Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.