Safeguarding Democracy: 5 Steps for Crisis Management in Elections

Even the best-planned elections hit snags. Instead of allowing the crises to overwhelm your election team, make a plan in advance. Not only will this help you stay calm during troubled times, but a solid plan will also help you take often-forgotten (but crucial) steps to navigating a crisis with a level head.

In this guide, we’ll explain why crisis management is so important in elections, share some common crisis scenarios you might encounter, and offer tips for creating a comprehensive crisis action plan in advance.

The Importance of Crisis Management in Election Processes

Clear, proactive communication before, during, and after an election crisis is essential. It prevents the spread of misinformation and builds trust, maintaining members’ confidence in the electoral process. Plus, good communication keeps your staff calm and productive during stressful times, which helps you make the most of your resources.

Creating and documenting a crisis management plan might seem like an extra step, but should something happen, it’s a helpful guide your team can refer to during the chaos of a crisis. Election crisis management also helps organizations:

  • Ensure fairness: Crises can lead to questions about the fairness and integrity of the election. This could result in challenges, disputes, and prolonged uncertainty. A robust crisis management plan mitigates these risks, ensuring that the election results reflect the true will of the membership.
  • Minimize disruptions: Any disruption can have wide-ranging consequences for all stakeholders, from candidates to voting members. Crisis management strategies minimize the impact of such disruptions, ensuring that the election process continues smoothly and efficiently.
  • Improve voter participation: Crises can have an adverse effect on voter turnout. Effective crisis management ensures that voters can safely and confidently participate in the election, regardless of the challenges that may arise.

Six Potential Crisis Scenarios for Elections

Identify and prepare for crisis scenarios to keep your electoral process moving as smoothly as possible. Every organization is different, but these are some common crisis scenarios that election management teams should prepare for:

  1. Forgetting a ballot item on the slate: Did you forget to include an essential item or candidate on the ballot? This leads to a lot of voter confusion and potential legal challenges. Fortunately, you can recover from this misstep with the right crisis communication plan. In addition to communicating via your website, we recommend sending a letter or postcard to members advising them about the issue. If you’re running a digital election, it can be as simple as notifying your election partner to adjust the voting website. However, if you have a hybrid election or in-person voting, you may need to move certain issues to another election (bylaws permitting) to accommodate for print lead times.
  2. Database issues: Databases store vital information about voters and candidates but can also cause several problems. For example, the database might have left members off the voter list, unintentionally disenfranchised voting members, or allowed ineligible voters to participate.
  3. Providing inaccurate information: Incorrect or outdated voter information can cause confusion and delays. It also hurts members’ trust in the electoral process and your organization as a whole.
  4. Abrupt staff departures: The sudden departure of key staff can disrupt the election process, leading to knowledge gaps or logistical missteps. Having detailed documentation, cross-training, and succession plans can help mitigate the impact of unexpected staff changes.
  5. Last-minute changes: Sometimes organizations need to make last-minute changes to a ballot, like accommodating petition candidates or candidate withdrawals. These last-minute changes can introduce more errors and confuse members without the right communication plan in place. Reprinting and resending paper ballots requires a lot of lead time and high costs, so working with a third-party election vendor like Survey & Ballot Systems could help you take care of this issue quickly and efficiently.
  6. Failure to follow state statutes or bylaws: This is one of the most significant election crises. Not only does it invalidate election results, but it can even lead to legal issues. For example, offering online voting when it isn’t allowed or failing to assure anonymity when required can put your organization in hot water. Prevention is best, but an election crisis communication plan is also helpful for mitigating legal liability and preserving trust.

How to Develop a Comprehensive Crisis Communication Plan

No one is eager to implement a crisis communication plan. In an ideal world, you would never need to use it. However, few crises are predictable, so it’s best to create an election crisis communication plan right now—just in case you need it later. Follow these tips to create a comprehensive crisis communication plan for every stage of the election process.

1. Have Clear Objectives

Clear objectives guide the actions of the crisis communication team and ensure that all efforts align with common goals. These objectives should focus on maintaining transparency, ensuring the sharing of timely and accurate information, and minimizing the impact of the crisis on the election process.

However, every organization’s crisis plan will have different objectives. For example, one organization might primarily be concerned with preventing legal liability, while another might want a playbook in place to avoid overwhelming their small election team. Choose personalized objectives to guide you through creating a relevant and actionable plan for your organization.

2. Plan for Every Stage of the Election Process

Crises can pop up at any stage of the election process. Your crisis communication plan should anticipate issues at each stage so you can address them as effectively as possible. Follow these best practices at every stage of the process:

  • Nominations: Establish and communicate clear guidelines for the nomination process to all candidates and members. Ensure that the requirements and deadlines are well-publicized to avoid confusion and disputes. Always follow a rigorous verification process to confirm candidates’ eligibility, so there are no questions later. Your crisis plan should prepare for scenarios where nominees withdraw or are disqualified. Have a communication plan ready to promptly inform the public and other candidates about any changes.
  • Petitions: Clearly outline the procedures for submitting and validating petitions. Make this information easily accessible to ensure that all participants understand the requirements. Develop a plan for handling discrepancies or disputes related to petitions.
  • Pre-election: Conduct comprehensive voter education campaigns to inform your members about voting procedures, polling logistics, and key dates. If you’re worried about potential issues, conduct crisis drills now to prepare your election team.
  • During the election: Establish clear communication channels for reporting and addressing problems. Ensure that election staff, candidates, and members know how to report issues and receive updates.
  • Post-election: Maintain open lines of communication with candidates, members, and other stakeholders after the election. Provide regular updates on the status of result verification and any issues.

3. Establish Crisis Communication Team Roles

Everyone should know their responsibilities in a crisis situation far ahead of time. Clear roles prevent finger-pointing and support quick, effective action. Every organization is different, but you’ll likely need to assign team members to these roles:

  • Crisis manager: The manager is responsible for coordination and management during a crisis. They ensure all actions align with the crisis communication plan and hold the team accountable for their responsibilities.
  • Spokesperson: A spokesperson is the primary point of contact for members, the public, and the media. This team member should be able to speak clearly and concisely to build trust with stakeholders.
  • Communication coordinators: Coordinators manage internal communications, informing all stakeholders about the crisis.
  • Technical support: Technical team members handle database errors and login problems. They’re also essential in the event of a database breach or any other IT issue that could affect the election. Many organizations need technical support but don’t have the means to offer it to members. This is why organizations tap Survey & Ballot Systems for their elections. Our dedicated technical team helps you quickly respond to any IT-related issues, while our industry-leading IT security framework ensures safety and compliance.
  • Legal advisor: As an organization, you likely already have legal counsel that helps you comply with laws and regulations. Make sure your legal representatives can offer urgent assistance during a time-sensitive crisis. If not, it might be worth hiring a specialized firm for this type of work.
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4. Write a Strategic Crisis Plan

You can’t predict all potential crises, but writing thoughtful responses for your crisis communication plan now will streamline future crisis communications. Prepare templates for various communication channels (social media, email, phone calls, SMS, website) to ensure quick and consistent messaging during a crisis. Make sure these templates address all potential stakeholders, including:

      • Internal staff
      • Members
      • Vendors
      • Media

5. Plan for Post-event Recovery

Every crisis management plan should include a post-mortem meeting. During this time, your team meets to address how it handled the crisis, analyzing what went well and what you should change going forward. Always return to the crisis management plan and rework areas that need improvement. Regular updates will help you manage crises better in the future, whether that’s adjusting your messaging or crisis management processes.

Your Path to Smooth and Fair Elections

Effective crisis management is critical to ensuring the integrity and smooth operation of election processes. By planning for potential crises, establishing clear communication channels, and maintaining transparency, election management teams can navigate challenges and uphold members’ trust. A well-developed crisis communication plan, coupled with regular training and evaluation, prepares all stakeholders to respond efficiently and effectively to any issues.

Handled well, election crises can become opportunities to demonstrate your transparency and build trust with members. But even with a plan in place, it’s still challenging to predict every possible outcome. Survey & Ballot Systems put together a guide based on our 30 years of experience managing elections—and the frequent crises that come up during them—to help you overcome common missteps. Download our free guide, “7 Election Mistakes: How to Avoid Them,” for better crisis planning.

If you’ve encountered election crises in the past or want to ensure you’re prepared for potential issues, our team of skilled election experts is here to help. We’ve seen it all and can answer any questions you may have. Contact Survey & Ballot Systems now to chat about how we can support your election needs.