These procedures and guidelines provide general guidance to elections officials in developing county-specific disaster and emergency plans should a natural disaster or state of emergency occur during critical election times. The critical times have been identified as follows:
The following information does not replace any existing emergency or disaster plans already established by the State or county elections officials. The information provided should be used in conjunction with any existing county plans. Emergency plans will differ by county, depending on factors such as staff size, county size, available facilities, fiscal constraints, and voting machines used by that county. In any emergency situation, it is vital that the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Legislature, and elections officials communicate clearly and frequently with each other and the public.
Please note that these procedures and guidelines take into account laws effective as of January 1, 2016.
Updated: May 13, 2016
Disaster and emergency planning is a vital tool in the election process. Planning begins with considering the types of situations that can disrupt or impede an election. The following is an outline that can be used as a tool to help prepare a county-specific plan.
Natural disasters can occur at any time and can include: snow, flooding, tornado, earthquake, and fire. The elections official should be prepared to move the operations of the office to another location in the event of a natural disaster.
The following precautions and steps are recommended to help lessen the spread of illness, such as an influenza outbreak or pandemic, and protect election staff and the public:
Personnel or Poll Worker Shortage
Personnel or poll worker shortages can impact the normal course of business in the office or at the polls on Election Day. The following are suggestions on how to overcome potential issues surrounding staffing shortages:
Power or Technology Failures
It is difficult to predict a power failure or problems with technology. Planning for these types of failures ahead of time and having a hard copy of the procedures is imperative. The following are suggestions:
Supply Shortage at the Polling Place
In the event of a shortage of supplies or ballots at the polling place, some members of the elections staff could be designated as “runners” so that election supplies can be quickly deployed to polling places. If feasible, runners should be equipped with backup voting equipment (that has been tested), ballots, and other polling place supplies in the event that a polling place depletes inventory or is unexpectedly relocated. Runners should have sufficient supplies available to respond to an assigned polling place in an efficient manner.
Additionally, if there is a ballot shortage, the elections official should be ready to deploy alternate forms of ballots to any affected polling places. (Elections Code section 14299.)
A bomb threat checklist should be available to all elections staff. A sample checklist can be found at https://emilms.fema.gov/is906/assets/ocso-bomb_threat_samepage-brochure.pdf.
Elections staff should be provided with evacuation procedures including:
Most counties have an established emergency plan. If an election emergency plan is already in place, it should be reviewed at least once a year to ensure all information in the plan is current and up to date.
An existing county-wide emergency plan can be used as a template to create an emergency plan specific to elections.
A line of succession for the elections office should be drafted and put in writing.
The line of succession should include all available contact information for those individuals should an emergency occur.
As a part of the line of succession, an office phone tree should be created in the event all of the members of the elections office need to be contacted. It should also designate which members of the staff are responsible for each section of the office in the event of an emergency.
The elections official should meet with the different sections of the office on a regular basis to determine which equipment/supplies should be removed from the office, who will do it, where the equipment/supplies will be taken, and how they will be secured, if necessary.
Identify other government agencies and other public officials that can assist with a disaster or emergency.
Contact your local and state emergency management offices. They may have existing plans for local or state emergencies that are not specifically related to the conduct of elections, but the plans may contain valuable information about resources that may be available to elections officials.
In advance of Election Day, establish which jurisdiction (city police, sheriff, CHP, etc.) each polling location is in so the correct agency can be contacted quickly in the event of an emergency.
Work with other county and local agencies such as law enforcement, fire departments, utility companies, and transportation agencies to identify resources that may be quickly allocated when responding to emergencies or disasters.
Additionally, prepare a list of all polling places in the county that can be provided to law enforcement, the fire department, emergency service agencies, county executives, and/or cities within your county should an emergency arise.
Utility companies and public works agencies should be contacted prior to the election as well to attempt to limit any work near a polling place on Election Day.
Create and maintain a list of key contacts for any identified agencies and public officials (including after-hours contact information). Examples of public officials that could be contacted include Board of Supervisors, county executives, county counsel, city council, city executives, and city attorneys.
Identifying backup locations before an emergency is a vital task. Examples of backup locations could include fairgrounds, other government buildings, community halls, memorial halls, schools, churches, fire departments, and police stations.
Elections Official’s Office
Prior to each election, alternative office space should be identified in the event that the main facility is unavailable for any reason. If feasible, procedures should be in place to procure and have on site at the alternate location office space, desks, computers, phones, and access to the voter registration system.
The elections official should work closely with their IT staff to ensure a smooth transition if a relocation is possible and necessary.
Prior to each election, the elections official should attempt to identify alternate polling places. The elections official should be mindful of the following in their planning:
Developing a communication plan before an emergency will make managing the emergency easier.
Develop a contact list for mission-critical staff and make it available to staff, inspectors, and any other necessary parties. Include the elections official, IT support, law enforcement, utility companies, transportation officials, facilities representatives (including backup facilities), and any other key officials who can be contacted during an emergency.
Communicate with your electricity, telephone, internet, and water/sewer providers in advance of every election to inform the companies that a polling place is being used. The elections official should request that these companies limit any work near polling places that could cause a power, phone, internet, and/or water shortage.
Establish media contacts for local newspapers, television and radio stations, and media in other languages to expedite communication. Social media (Twitter, Facebook) can also be a useful tool to share information with the public. Suggestions relating to media:
It may also prove useful to coordinate and share information with neighboring jurisdictions.
In the event land and cellular telephone lines become unavailable, ham radios can also be a useful tool.
It is recommended that polling places (and main offices) be equipped with the following helpful items in an emergency:
Other items that can be helpful include: backup generators, lights, extension cords, tarps, and emergency tools.
Once a plan has been established, the elections official should determine which staff in the office should receive a copy of the plan (paper copy and an electronic version on a thumb drive) and where to find a copy in the office.
The Military and Overseas Voters (MOVE) Act (52 U.S.C., §§ 20301-20311) and state law (Elections Code section 3114) require that military and overseas ballots be transmitted by E-45. Even in the event of an emergency, these ballots must be transmitted by the E-45 deadline.
In the event of an emergency on or close to E-45, the elections official should immediately notify the Secretary of State’s office and also be in contact with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to ensure the Military and Overseas Voter ballots are transmitted in a timely fashion.
To ensure that ballot transmittal can be accomplished by the E-45 deadline, all Military and Overseas Voter registration data, including the preferred method of delivery, should be backed up daily, ideally with a copy stored at an off-site location. The off-site location should have the proper equipment to transmit the ballots via mail, e-mail, and facsimile.
If the office of the elections official is not accessible, the elections official must notify the United States Postal Service immediately to redirect any Military and Overseas Voter registration materials and/or ballot requests.
A plan should be in place in the event that a polling place (or multiple polling places) is non-operational due to fire, earthquake, or some other circumstance before the polls open on Election Day.
The elections official should work closely with law enforcement and the jurisdiction’s office of emergency services to determine which polling places have been impacted. Poll workers assigned to the affected polling place should be contacted and given further instructions on where the new polling place will be.
The elections official should immediately notify the Secretary of State of any inaccessible polling locations and the new locations. The elections official should also contact the media to inform them of the impacted and revised polling places.
The elections official and the inspector(s) of the affected polling place(s) should ensure that voting supplies are quickly delivered to the new polling place. If possible, any voting supplies at the affected polling place should be retrieved for use at the new polling place.
Signs should be placed as near as possible to the impacted polling place directing voters to the new polling place.
If original or alternate vote-by-mail ballots are not available, sample ballots or copies of ballots should be sent to the new polling place. If sample ballots or copies of ballots are used, those ballots should be treated as provisional ballots until there is sufficient time to review and ensure the voter is an eligible voter. It is imperative that the voter’s ballot type is clearly marked on the provisional envelope to remake voted ballot(s) onto official ballot(s) that correspond to the correct ballot style for counting.
In case of an emergency that interrupts voting at a polling place, the polling place inspector must:
If the site can safely be reopened after evacuation, the inspector should call the elections official's office, who should:
In the event a ballot receiving location is impacted, the elections official and polling place inspector should identify an alternate site for the collection of ballots and supplies from those precinct inspectors assigned to deliver voted ballots and supplies to the affected receiving location. Inspectors should be contacted and given instructions on the new receiving location. The elections official should notify local law enforcement, who may assist in ballot retrieval from polling places.
A backup location should be identified prior to the election in the event the central count location is inaccessible on Election Day. The elections official should notify the Board of Supervisors, the Secretary of State, and the media of the change in the central count location.
If possible, all ballot tabulation systems and support equipment should be delivered to the backup location as quickly and safely as possible. All voted ballots should be securely transported and monitored.
In the event of a natural disaster or other emergency during the canvass period, the office of the elections official should be secured immediately.
All voted ballots should be retrieved and secured as quickly and as safely as possible. If time allows, the ballots should be taken to a secure backup location.
All computers, heavy machinery, and vote processing equipment should be secured.
If feasible, any affidavits of registration that have not been processed and/or scanned should also be retrieved.
Elections officials should contact the Secretary of State and all of their election management vendors immediately.
Vote-by-mail ballots should be secured by the vote-by-mail coordinator. The coordinator should perform the following:
In the event of an emergency, the California Elections Code gives local elections officials and voters some flexibility should an issue arise shortly before or on Election Day.
If one or more poll workers do not show up for work at the opening of the polls on Election Day, voters who are present at the polling place, and any members of the precinct board who are present, may appoint a voter to fill any vacancy. (Elections Code section 12313.)
A precinct inspector may appoint a voter to replace any poll worker who cannot perform his or her duties on Election Day. (Elections Code section 12314.)
A majority of the remaining poll workers may appoint a substitute if a precinct inspector cannot perform his or her duties on Election Day. (Elections Code section 12315.)
While elections officials are given some latitude under the Elections Code to modify their procedures in the event of an emergency, other actions require action by the Governor and/or the State Legislature.
Under Government Code section 8571, the Governor has the authority to declare a state of emergency and issue an executive order waiving or suspending certain laws.
Government Code section 8567 authorizes the Governor during a declared state of emergency to make, amend, and rescind orders and regulations that have the force of law necessary to carry out a State Emergency Plan.
The following are some election scenarios during an emergency or disaster, and the laws the Governor may wish to waive or suspend.
If a polling place must be moved using existing law, voting hours may need to be extended, which would require either a gubernatorial executive order or a court order.
If voting hours are extended by a court order, Elections Code section 14402.5 requires that all votes after 8:00 p.m. be cast on provisional ballots. If there is a statewide court order, the Governor may waive the provisional ballot requirement for votes cast after 8:00 p.m.
If the Governor wants to extend voting hours or accept vote-by-mail ballots beyond 8:00 p.m. on Election Day without a court order, the following laws may need to be waived or suspended:
If the Governor wants to allow all voters to return vote-by-mail ballots or to cast ballots outside of the county where they are registered to vote, the following laws may need to be waived or suspended.
Out-of-State Emergency Workers
In the event of an out-of-state emergency near Election Day, the Governor has the authority under Elections Code section 3021.5 to allow California emergency workers the opportunity to vote.
An out-of-state emergency worker is defined by Elections Code section 336.7 as a voter who is officially engaged in responding to the proclamation of an out-of state emergency and whose vocation has been identified in an executive order relating to the state of emergency.
Upon the declaration of an out-of-state emergency by the Governor and the issuance of an executive order authorizing an out-of-state emergency worker to cast a ballot outside of his or her home precinct, a county elections official shall, upon request of an out-of-state emergency worker, issue a vote-by-mail ballot to the out-of-state emergency worker using a process to be determined by that elections official.
The process shall include all of the following:
In-State, But Out-of-Precinct Emergency Workers
An in-state emergency worker is a person who is officially engaged in responding to the proclaimed state of emergency and whose vocation has been identified in an executive order relating to the state of emergency.
In the event of an in-state emergency near Election Day, the Governor has the authority under Elections Code section 14313 to allow California emergency workers the opportunity to vote.
Upon the declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor and the issuance of an executive order authorizing an emergency worker to cast a ballot outside of his or her home precinct, elections officials in the counties included in the executive order shall, upon demand, issue to an emergency worker a provisional ballot that may be identical to the provisional ballot offered to other voters in the county, using a process to be determined by the elections official. The elections official shall transmit for processing any ballot cast, including any materials necessary to process the ballot, pursuant to this section to the elections official in the county where the voter is registered to vote.
To be counted, a ballot cast pursuant to this section shall satisfy both of the following requirements:
Upon receipt of the returned ballot, the elections official shall process the ballot pursuant to the procedures in subdivision (c) of Elections Code section 14310.
If the Governor wants to eliminate polling places altogether and conduct the entire election by mail, the following laws would need to be amended by the Legislature:
In the case of emergency or disaster, Government Code section 8571 gives the Governor the power to cancel and reschedule an election.
To reschedule an election, the Governor would need to waive Elections Code section 12000 and establish a new election date.
Elections Code section 15101 permits elections officials to begin processing vote-by-mail ballots ten business days before Election Day. If the election might be cancelled, it is advisable that this law be waived at least ten business days before Election Day to ensure vote-by-mail ballots that have already been cast are not prematurely counted and the results of that count reported.
The following Elections Code sections set procedures that must begin upon the closure of the polls. County elections officials have procedures for returning ballots and polling place supplies in the event of an emergency or disaster. If these procedures cannot be followed at the time polls close, the following laws may need to be waived or suspended:
In case of a disaster in which a portion or all of the voting records of any county are destroyed, the Governor may appoint an election commission to outline and recommend procedures to be followed in the conduct of regular or special elections. The commission shall consist of the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the county elections official of each county in which destruction occurs. (Elections Code § 14)
Elections Code section 15150 requires county elections officials to begin the semifinal official canvass as soon as the polls close. In the event of an emergency or disaster during the ten days before the election or on Election Day, Elections Code section 15101 may also need to be waived.
If the official canvass and transmission of results have begun pursuant to Elections Code sections 15150 and 15151, then the following laws may need to be waived or suspended:
Secretary of State – www.sos.ca.gov/elections
Election Assistance Commission (EAC)
Federal Emergency Management Agency – Government (Federal, Local, and
State) – http://www.fema.gov
Governor'’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) – www.caloes.ca.gov
Disaster Resource Guide – Planning and Management Articles
Natural Disasters and Severe Weather
Extreme heat – www.ready.gov/heat
Winter storms and extreme cold
Thunderstorms and lightning – www.ready.gov/thunderstorms-lightning
Floods – www.ready.gov/floodawareness
Landslide and debris flow – www.ready.gov/earthquakes
Earthquakes – www.ready.gov/earthquakes
Wildfires – www.ready.gov/wildfires
Tornadoes – www.ready.gov/tornadoes
Manmade Disasters and Other Risks
Technological and accidental hazards
Flu Season and Pandemic Planning – Health Resources
General information – www.ready.gov/pandemic
Center for Disease Control (CDC) – www.cdc.gov
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
World Health Organization
Library of Congress – Document Care