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This story by Mindy Moretti originally appeared in the April 18 electionlineWeekly.

No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition – nor do you expect the roof to cave in on you, but that’s exactly what happened to elections officials in Stark County, Ohio.

On Wednesday April 10 a portion of the roof of the garage where the county stores its 1,400-plus electronic voting machines caved in, dumping gallons of water and debris into the area.

Although none of the debris from the roof damaged the machines, water and subsequent moisture may have had an impact.

While this would be problematic for any elections office any time of the year, an added twist for officials is that Stark is scheduled to hold a primary in less than a month.

The board has been looking to move it’s entire operations to a new location, but this was the first time there had been a problem with the roof. According to Jeffrey Matthews, director of the Stark County board of elections, the roof was inspected and resealed in 2006 prior to the board using the space for storing the voting equipment there.

“It is unknown at this point how many [machines] are damaged and due to corrosion, it may not be evident for some time,” said Matthews. “All were exposed to moisture, hundreds were exposed to water.”

Unfortunately, surrounding Ohio counties weren’t able to help Stark County out like Texas counties were able to chip-in and loan Harris County voting machines after its voting machine warehouse burned to the ground in 2010.

“The other surrounding counties really don’t have the quantities that we would require,” Matthews said. “And most of them are conducting some kind of election.”

With the primary less than a month away and borrowing voting machines out of the question, the county quickly moved to Plan B, which is going to require spending about $250,000 to rent voting machines from the voting machine vendors — Dominion and ES&S.

Fortunately because the May primary typically sees smaller turnout than a presidential year election, the county was able to get permission from the secretary of state’s office to use fewer voting machines than it typically would.

Mathews said the county will also increase the number of backup paper ballots in a manner reflective of the percentages used in the 2012 presidential election.

“We do have emergency plans in place, however you learn that you don’t always anticipate every aspect of every possible scenario,” Matthews said.

Expect the unexpected
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) has convened a task force to help counties like Stark and those in New York and New Jersey impacted by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012 expect the unexpected.

The task force, which includes secretaries of states and elections officials from around the country, is co-chaired by Louisiana’s Tom Schedler and Connecticut’s Denise Merrill, both of who are familiar with dealing with election emergencies.

Merrill said be prepared for situations like happened in Stark County will definitely be part of the task force’s work.

“That’s a classic example of the types of situations we want to prepare for,” Merrill said.

And Merrill speaks from experience. In 2011, about a week before local elections, just when registrars were getting ready to power up their voting equipment for testing and battery charging, an ice storm hit Connecticut knocking out power to thousands residents and buildings, some for up to a week. Merrill said towns had to share services and power to pull off the election.

Merrill said that while most elections officials have emergency plans in place, because large natural disasters seem to be happening at a much more frequent rate, the task force will focus much of its work there.

“When I gave a workshop recently about emergency preparedness, there was tremendous interest,” Merrill said. “Our country is such a patchwork quilt of elections dates and procedures, what may seem like an isolated incident really isn’t.”

According to Merrill the task force has already had one organizational meeting and will meet again via conference call before they convene in person at the NASS annual conference this summer.

“We’ll build on the work of the EAC [U.S. Election Assistance Commission],” Merrill said. “They did have an emergency plan model that they developed and we will build off of that. We’ll focus on communications plans, who has statutory authority in the event of an emergency, who is in charge when the lights go out, things like that.”