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Johnson County, Missouri Prepares for Election Day Emergencies
Nowadays election offices are increasingly safeguarding our elections, usually focusing on
cybersecurity. You know what spearphishing looks like, you use two-factor authentication, you
have DDoS protection, you’ve done penetration testing. But what happens when a man
collapses and poll workers need to perform CPR? Or when a fire starts and the polling place
needs to be evacuated? Or when severe weather knocks out the polling place’s power?
Even garden-variety emergencies can derail an election if you’re not prepared to respond.
That’s why the elections office in Johnson County, Missouri partnered with emergency
management officials to create an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) for Polling Places. The
plan ranges from likely situations (severe weather) to incredibly unlikely situations (bomb
threats). Poll workers are trained on the EOP before every election--though thankfully they’ve
never had to use it.
One of Johnson County’s Emergency Management vehicles.
Preparing for the Worst
Johnson County, Missouri, not to be confused with the 11 other Johnson Counties in the U.S.,
has 32,000 registered voters, in between Missouri’s smallest county at 1,500 and its largest at
758,000. Election administration can vary drastically by jurisdiction size, but emergency
preparedness is a notable exception. Emergencies can happen anywhere and the steps to
mitigate an emergency are fairly consistent.
Before 2017, Johnson County didn’t have an election-specific EOP. Diane Thompson, the
Johnson County Clerk, partnered with the county’s Emergency Management Agency to prepare
election workers to respond to commonplace scenarios, worst-case scenarios, and everything in
between. Diane worked with the director, Troy Armstrong, to decide which scenarios to include
in the EOP. Then his team created the EOP using in-house knowledge and best practices from
the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Diane Thompson, Johnson County Clerk, and Troy Armstrong, Director of Johnson County’s
Emergency Management Agency.
The EOP covers five general scenarios. For medical emergencies, it explains what a 911
responder will ask, whether the person should be moved, and when to administer CPR or an
automated external defibrillator (AED). The plan details how to receive weather notifications and
seek shelter from extreme weather. In case of fire, the plan explains whether to evacuate or
attempt to extinguish the fire. It breaks down the hierarchy of responses to active threats, along
with tips on interacting with the threat, any disarmed weapons, and law enforcement. For bomb
threats, checklists help identify suspicious packages, communicate with bomb threat callers,
and concentrate on remembering important details.
These hypotheticals, especially the last two, can be intimidating. Thankfully, as Troy reminds us,
they are extremely unlikely. “In general, we’re not going to see a catastrophic incident occurring
at our polling locations; most generally it will be a minor medical emergency or something as
simple as a pig showing up!” That actually happened in 2016--a 600-pound pig wandered
around a New Hampshire polling place, and Troy includes this example in his training materials.
“Putting a humor spin into learning and planning always makes things such as emergency
preparedness a bit more bearable.”
A pig at a polling place, adding some practical humor to a presentation on emergency
Beyond general emergency practices, the EOP also includes elections-specific information. It
lists contact information for the Voter Registration Office and location information for every
precinct. The last page of the EOP, customized for each polling place, designates a weather
sheltering location and a reunification point. Equipment is ranked by importance—“Critical
Priority,” such as the media stick with voting information, “Secondary Priority,” such as voting
machines, and “General Priority,” such as unvoted ballots. In the EOP, each of these is
assigned to an election worker to gather while evacuating (but only if safe to do so).
“Don’t wait until an event is happening to think about how you will react,” Diane suggests.
“Develop a plan, review it regularly, update it when needed and hope you never have to use it.
The safety and security of our polling places, our judges, and our voters is a vital part of our
Partnering with Emergency Management Experts
At least 45 states have statutes addressing election emergencies, though they usually concern
relocating polling places, extending voting hours, or rescheduling the election. The actual
logistics (e.g., when and how to evacuate) are handled by the election administrator. Some
states provide guidance like EOP templates, but many don’t. “At an annual county clerk
conference we attended, I asked the group as a whole if anyone had an emergency operations
plan that we could take a look at,” Diane says. “No one raised their hand.”
So Diane started looking for other resources. “JoCo Emergency Management seemed like the
logical agency to reach out to,” she explains, and they “were very receptive to the idea of
Election officials tend to wear many hats and be experts in many areas. It may come as a relief
that you don’t need to develop expertise in emergency management too—a good collaboration
will combine your elections expertise with their emergency expertise. “When we started this
process,” Troy says, “I knew nothing about polling locations, or election specific information; but
I did know emergency operations planning.”
A “Stop the Bleed” class taught by Johnson County Emergency Management Agency.
Moving forward, Diane and Troy are considering expanding the partnership, maybe having Troy
teach “Stop the Bleed” and “Help Until Help Arrives” classes for election workers. And the new
EOP has gotten attention across the state—Troy has even helped other jurisdictions start the
process of creating similar EOPs.
Creating a Plan for Your Office
If your office doesn’t have a plan, don’t start from scratch! Your state may provide guidance
already (like California and Colorado). Fellow election officials may have EOPs, and state
association conferences are a good place to ask around. Johnson County had great success
partnering directly with the local emergency management agency, and you shouldn’t hesitate to
reach out to yours. Emergency preparedness is a well-developed field, so don’t reinvent the
“Once the plan is in place,” Troy says, “PRACTICE IT! You could have the greatest plan on
paper, but once it’s exercised, you’ll find ‘hiccups’ along the way. Have the plan, exercise it,
re-evaluate and adapt it; then test it again! Also, review the plan on an annual basis; locations
change, personnel change, procedures change; keep it current!”
If you have questions for Diane and Troy, you can reach them at
DThompson@jococourthouse.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you have difficulty
finding your local emergency management agency, the state-level agencies usually provide
local contact information.
The Election Assistance Commission has a round-up of election contingency plans, as well as 6
Tips for Contingency and Disaster Planning and a longer, in-depth chapter on Contingency
Planning and Change Management.
Part of your EOP will be election-specific, and even customized for each polling place, but most
emergency best practices are universal. Ready.gov provides comprehensive instructions for
creating an emergency response plan. It includes a worksheet, templates, and a round-up of
best practices for each type of emergency scenario.