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BPC Intern Perspective: California Wildfires Spotlight the Importance of Emergency Elections Planning

In recent weeks there has been great attention paid to the recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsom while the complicated issue of voting during record wildfires has been largely ignored. Fires have displaced tens of thousands of Californians from their homes, resulting in countless technical questions about how, when, and where evacuated California citizens can vote. Thanks to both the preparedness and quick response of California’s election officials, voters will still be able to exercise their right to vote this September, regardless of evacuation status.

Events like the wildfires in California, hurricanes in Florida, and tornados in Tennessee during elections are somber yet important reminders of the importance of proactive and strategic emergency preparedness for elections. To best serve voters, BPC’s Task Force on Elections recommends that state and local election officials and policymakers take two key actions to prepare for the unexpected, ensure the right to vote, and protect the legitimacy of the election process:

  1. States should create emergency election procedures that include contingencies for weather, terrorism, or other disasters. Detailed emergency response plans enable quick response during an emergency. Without clear plans and chains of command in place, time that should be spent implementing and communicating changes to voters is instead spent debating over the right course of action resulting in delays and unnecessary confusion.
  2. States should require local election offices to develop emergency election procedures and submit them to the state for review and coordination. U.S. elections are highly decentralized, and while some disasters are global in nature, others are highly local. It’s critical that states work with their localities to ensure that all levels of elections are protected against emergencies.
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Current State of Voting in California

As the September 14 election nears, election officials are rapidly adjusting to ensure Californians who have been displaced or evacuated from their homes can still vote in the recall. The California Secretary of State has long-standing policies which allow counties to communicate clearly and quickly with voters. California is one of the states that is well-prepared to take on disruptive events, but getting there wasn’t necessarily quick.

When a plan is in place, election officials can quickly adjust voting processes to ensure ballot access, but these voters must in turn see and understand that authoritative information. For example, the El Dorado County Elections department posted clear, timely information on Facebook that details the various methods voters can use to cast their ballot:

This post illustrates the plans in place and effective emergency procedures. El Dorado County has a population of almost 200,000 people and guaranteeing all eligible voters view this information—regardless of the medium of dissemination—proves difficult. California is a strong example where emergency policies are already in place so that when disaster strikes, the focus is on information dissemination.

How Best to Plan for the Worst

Even though most Americans only interact with the voting process once every few years, elections take months (if not years) of logistics and preparation. When an emergency occurs, there is limited time to figure out alternative options. Lack of a plan can significantly compound the difficulty of the election office’s response, often to the detriment of the voter. Emergency preparedness for elections did not receive the attention it deserved during many of the 2021 state legislative sessions, where the focus was firmly set on election security and control over counting.

Having plans in place well before a disaster strikes makes it much more difficult to question the legitimacy of the actions taken. Policymakers in some states believe that non-legislative changes during presidential elections are inherently unconstitutional. If it is clear prior to an election what detailed plans will be in place, it becomes much harder for anyone to make claims about the rules being changed.

The public health crisis that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of these recommendations. The 2020 election was a success, but the early response to the pandemic was often confusing for voters; state authorities battled over who had authority over what decisions, resulting in elections that were delayed and then reinstated and election offices that were left under resourced for huge increases in mail ballots. And the most common emergency solution—mail ballots—became a target for some as an illegitimate option because many of the states had no previous expansive policy including them.

With climate disasters becoming more common, states and localities must adopt emergency election plans to ensure Americans can exercise their right to vote. California’s wildfires are yet another reminder. It is painstakingly clear that contingency plans for elections must be both detailed and practical so that regardless of environmental, health, and political crises every American can exercise their right to vote safely and securely.