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A shitstorm of an election
We visit a worst-case scenario election training exercise that feels all too real.
In the weeks leading up to the election in Cactus County, Arizona, everything that could go wrong went wrong — and then some.
Election officials were hit with a ransomware attack that compromised sensitive election and recorder’s office files. Waves of voters complained about receiving multiple ballots. Politicians went on TV to warn voters to not mail their ballots and threaten to arrest election workers. The state Legislature prepared to audit all the counties’ election results with auditors who were part-time carnival ride attendants.
On Election Day, computer systems crashed. Confused voters wandered neighborhoods looking for their polling places. Somebody smeared feces all over a polling site. Armed protesters showed up at election sites to check the immigration status of voters. A scuffle ensued, and two people died.
It was, truly, a nightmare election.
Luckily, it was all a drill.
Election officials, law enforcement agents, IT workers and elected officials from across the state recently spent the day in the ballroom in a north Phoenix hotel for a simulated election designed to grind down their ability to think while throwing the worst-case scenarios for Election Day at them.
The “tabletop exercise” aimed to sharpen their ability to function in a high-stress, no-win emergency situation and force them to think through the various aspects of election management that could spontaneously combust on the real Election Day.
It’s part Dungeons and Dragons-style role playing, part choose-your-own-adventure video game and a whole lot of chaos.
The game is an exaggerated version of running elections in Arizona, but the examples put forth ring a bit too true at times.
After the 2020 election, cries of conspiracy about all manner of election administration — from Sharpies to tabulation machines to bamboo paper to Splunk logs — flew through the state.
The Arizona Senate launched an audit led by a company that still refuses to show its work to the public. The Legislature is now mulling over a variety of election laws to address the audit’s dubious findings as GOP candidates running for the state’s highest offices flirt with election-overturning on the campaign trail.
Each election has its problems, though not the massive fraud some contend. The exercise helps the people who run our elections confront these scenarios in advance so they’re prepared for the inevitable. And in this environment of tension and heightened scrutiny on elections officials, it’s more important than ever to avoid missteps, even honest ones.
Participants, including county elections directors and their staff, recorders and supervisors, had to decide how to spend their budgets — buying phishing training, for example, would ward off phishing attacks, but counties then might not have enough cash on hand to do public education, which could lead to rampant misinformation and protests.
Meanwhile, participants were also given free will to take whatever no-cost actions they deemed necessary to respond to the threats — like holding a press conference to dispute the lies politicians were spreading, firing employees who spread misinformation, or asking Katie Hobbs, the real secretary of state who was on hand for the event, for more money.
But the exercise offered no winning combination. No scenario of purchases and actions that elections officials could take to make the election go smoothly, Ken Matta, the chief security officer at the Secretary of State’s Office who designed the program, explained.
“It’s not about beating the game,” Matta said. “It’s about the people here having to think about those sorts of eventualities and strategizing about what they can do to prepare or how they can handle it.”
From their failures in the game, they gain experience problem-solving and hopefully come up with unique solutions to the variety of problems presented, he said.
“So if and when that happens in real life, they’ll be like, this was just like that stupid game we did,” Matta said.
As they reacted to disaster after disaster, the officials faced real-time calls to their cell phones and a flood of emails delivering more bad news. News flashes popped up on the big screen on the front of the room, as our own Rachel Leingang read off the latest fake breaking news reports, including all-too-real scenarios like this:
All the while, the pesky press corps, represented by Secretary of State’s Office communications director C. Murphy Hebert, a former reporter, grilled the officials about their poor execution of the fake election.
Lisa Marra, the Cochise County Elections Director, said the training forces election officials and others involved in facilitating elections to think through the various bad scenarios that can play out on Election Day.
Feces smeared all over a polling place, for example, might not seem like the worst thing that can happen. But poll workers can’t clean that up — they’d need hazmat suits. After playing the game, counties are considering putting professional cleaning crews on standby in case they’re needed for feces or anything else.
“It’s just like how law enforcement trains: They train for like the worst scenarios with simulated stress and immediately thinking on your feet under pressure,” she said.
Just like in real life, each of the simulated counties are different, with different threats, vulnerabilities and processes. When the Secretary of State’s Office did a similar training in 2019, the focus was mostly misinformation and disinformation. This year, the focus was largely IT problems and threats of physical violence.
While Marra’s simulated county used “vote centers”1 and was able to close down one center when violence erupted, others used a “precinct polling place” model, meaning they couldn’t simply shut it down and direct voters elsewhere. In one county, officials weren’t able to shutter the simulated polling place in time, and two people were killed in the violence.
If you’re thinking about how to respond as violence is happening, it’s too late, Marra noted. Elections officials need to have a plan and a process in place to make decisions about how and when to shut down voting places if violence threatens to break out.
Every year, people pass out at polling places from heat exhaustion or low blood sugar — elections officials are prepared for that.
But after political violence, threats and conspiracies ratcheted up in the 2020 election, violent scenarios seem increasingly plausible to Marra, who notes that combating misinformation takes up an increasingly large chunk of her time. While she hopes she never needs to use her training, she’s glad she has it.
“It’s different in elections nowadays. It used to just be paper and pens and cardboard booths,” she said. “Now, you have to be an attorney, you have to be a social worker, you have to be an IT programmer, you have to be a budget analyst. It’s so complicated. That’s why I think these trainings are important.”
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Vote centers, like those used in Maricopa County, allow voters to cast their ballots at any location in the county. The precinct polling place models that many smaller counties use require voters to go to their specific neighborhood polling place to cast a ballot.