While many were focused on digital threats from abroad on Super Tuesday, the primary contest in Tennessee yesterday was disrupted by a different hazard: severe weather and tornadoes that killed at least 22 people, caused widespread damage, and left thousands without power. But Tennesseans were still able to participate in the primary thanks to resiliency planning, alternative voting methods, and clear messaging.
Just seven hours before polls were set to open in Tennessee, storms ripped through the state, rendering no fewer than 28 polling places across four counties unusable, including in the city of Nashville. But thanks to the diligent contingency planning of state and local elections officials—which happens across the country—Super Tuesday voting went as smoothly as could be expected in the impacted jurisdictions. The lessons learned will help to improve election administration across the country for the Presidential election this fall.
While cyber threats have received the bulk of the attention in recent years, election officials face several unexpected scenarios every election. As a result, officials create contingency plans for a wide variety of possible issues–including natural and other disasters. Across the country, there are resiliency and contingency procedures baked into all election planning.
First, local administrators have backup plans for their primary method of voting, which include paper ballots that can be hand-marked or provisional ballots where power outages limit the use of electronic voting systems. In Tennessee, the voting systems in use across the state vary by county. Some use electronic systems and others are using paper-based systems for the first time. In both cases, voters should know that there is always a backup voting option in the event of emergencies. No voter should ever be turned away due to a power outage.
Where voters are required to cast ballots on Election Day at specific neighborhood precincts, election administrators can consolidate precincts where needed. This was the case in Nashville, and voters were directed to alternate sites that were already handling voting. These locations had the correct ballot styles for affected voters and could accommodate the extra capacity. Additionally, the office of the Davidson County Elections Commission (Nashville) was made available as a polling site to any voter whose polling place was unavailable.
Second, elections no longer take place primarily on Election Day exclusively at those neighborhood precincts. That is especially true in Tennessee. It is a high early voting state. Before primary day, 336,604 Tennesseans had already cast their ballots. While there are several contests on both the Republican and Democratic ballots, the highest profile and most contested race is the Democratic presidential primary. Roughly 170,000 of those early votes were cast in the Democratic primary, which is about half the number of total ballots cast in the last contested Democratic primary in 2016.
Some jurisdictions, like Wilson County, were not using neighborhood precincts at all. Voters there were casting their ballots at any one of 18 Election Day vote centers, two of which were made unavailable by the tornado. These vote centers can accommodate all ballot styles and serve larger numbers of voters more efficiently. They are in use in many states across the country and likely a staple of the polling place of the future.
Finally, it is essential that resiliency planning include a way to widely disseminate key information. Election administrators in Tennessee from the local level through Secretary of State Tre Hargett were quick to get vital messages to voters. By about 6:00am, before voting was slated to start, the Secretary was on Twitter with important information for voters in affected counties.
Major newspapers—such as the Tennessean—included election and voting-related updates within stories about the storms. The official updates were posted to the impacted jurisdictions’ websites, Facebook, and Twitter.
Voters need to turn to trusted sources of information during unexpected events during the election cycle. For most voters, that would be a local election official (tip: Google your county or city name + “elections”) or the Secretary of State (who is the chief election official in 40 states). The Bipartisan Policy Center is a partner with the National Association of Secretaries of State on its #TrustedInfo2020 initiative, where the public can find key, reliable information about the voting process.
Weather events impacting elections is nothing new. Tennessee was very nearly impacted by a historic 14-tornado outbreak, just as polls closed during the 2008 presidential primary. Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey shortly before the 2012 election, decimating Election Day voting options in some jurisdictions across both states. And Hurricane Michael did the same in Florida in 2018. But election administrators were able to find ways to allow voters to participate in each of these instances and many others.
American elections are rarely canceled due to unexpected events. One notable cancellation occurred during the New York City primary election on September 11, 2001. Instead, administrators have built contingencies into the process to allow voters to participate despite challenging conditions.
Those contingencies worked yesterday and will inform planning in Tennessee and across the country going forward.