Polling Places and Target Hardening

Voting is perhaps our nation’s greatest liberty, which makes terrorist or active shooter-type attack on a polling place a viable concern. On Tuesday November 8th, thousands of government buildings, faith-based organizations and even schools will lower their security posture by opening their facilities to unscreened visitors.   Around November 5th, media will likely report that polling places are potential soft targets for terrorist attacks.

While waiting to get started on November 5th might create challenges, it’s never too late to do something.  Envision a timeline with an “X” in the middle representing an emergency on election day.  Everything to the right of “X” is the response.  Everything before the “X” is an opportunity to prevent or mitigate the impact of the incident.  The following election day strategies can get you before the “X.”

Before X

As leaders look to enhance security, it is important they understand the role of security; which is summarized by the 5 D’s.

  1. Deter criminal actions
  2. Detect intrusions
  3. Deny unwanted entry
  4. Delay intruders
  5. Defend people and property

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)

When considering the overarching security plan for any location, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a great place to start.  CPTED has been around since 1970’s and while the term was coined by criminologist C. Ray Jeffery, the principles in practice today are a combination of multidisciplinary efforts.  Some key components of CPTED that related to more secure entrances include:

Natural surveillance

People are less likely to commit crimes if they feel they are being observed.  Natural surveillance involves the designing of features to maximize the visibility of areas that should be observed.

Access control

Limiting and regulating entrances reduces opportunities for crime and allows for more efficient screening of persons entering a facility.

TerritorialityERIP App

Clear delineation of space creates a sense of ownership for legitimate users (staff) and creates an environment where intruders are more likely to standout.

Security is more than the 5 D’s and CPTED is much broader than these three basic concepts, but these concepts are a strong foundation for making polling

places safer on election day.  All-hazards emergency plans are another vital consideration.  While the following target hardening concepts are more geared towards an active shooter type attack, plans for bomb threat and even natural hazards, like severe weather, should also be reviewed before the election.  If at all possible, this review should include election officials.

5 Steps to a More Secure Polling Place

  1. On-Site Law Enforcement.

 CPTED Elements:  Natural Surveillance, Natural Access Control, and Territoriality

 On July 20th, 2012 a killer opened fire on crowded theatre during the opening night of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.”   If you go to the opening night of any action movie blockbuster, you will now see uniformed law enforcement to serve as a deterrent and provide immediate and embedded active shooter response.

During a presidential election, polling places warrant the same level of attention. Having a marked squad car out front and a uniformed officer is far and away your best target hardening strategy; especially in the morning when the polls open.

Coordinate with your local law enforcement agency to have an officer on site or at least request frequent and random visits.   Because an objective of an attack on a polling is likely to be to disrupt voting, an attack in the morning, that will take full advantage of the news cycle, is most likely.

  1. Separate points of entry.

 CPTED Elements:  Natural Surveillance, Natural Access Control, and Territoriality

Effective access control requires that entry to and from of a facility be regulated.  Separate points of entry for employees and voters allows for such monitoring.  If the polling place is not compartmentalized from normal business, the point of entry into the facility from the polling place must also be monitored.  To the maximum extent possible, the polling place and employees should not share any facilities.

For a point of entry to be regulated, no unauthorized person should pass through without the drawing the attention of those responsible for the safety of the building.  Persons assigned to monitor points of entry should be trained in emergency response, no how to alert others and be aware for suspicious activity.

  1. Staff Awareness.

 CPTED Elements:  Natural Surveillance, Territoriality

 Staff must be required to observe and report suspicious activities.   This requires training on Pre Attack INdicators (PAINs).  Staff should understand reporting options beyond calling 911 and know how to implement heightened security procedures and respond to an attack.  This includes election staff.  Make certain they can immediately contact the front office for emergencies or possible danger, like an unattended bag or brief case.



  1. Establish and Monitor Visitor Parking

CPTED Elements:  Natural Surveillance, Territoriality

Prior to entering Sandy Hook Elementary School, the killer parked his car in a fire lane near the main entrance.  He wanted to park as close as possible to minimize the distance from his car to the school entrance.  Set up visitor parking in an area that allows for convenient access to the polling place.  Place traffic cones to reinforce no parking in fire lanes.  A person ignoring convenient visitor parking and traffic cones in a fire lane, should immediately increase suspicion.

Convenient parking will increase compliance and afford opportunity to observe voters and possible intruders in the parking lot – before they gain access to the polling place.  This early recognition of possible danger will improve response times and provide better options.

  1. Deterrence Media

Around November 1st, implement a deterrence media campaign to proactively educate community members on measures implemented to improve safety and security during the election.

Deterrence Media is a risk communications strategy that provides factual messages about capabilities and strengths; thus deterring criminal activity and creating a more positive safety climate.  Social media sites and mass notification systems can be effectively used to broadcast these messages in addition to standard press releases.

Sharing general aspects of security enhancements can increase the community’s confidence in safety while possibly discouraging potential attacks.  Do not afraid to get the work out before the election!

Do Something

Protecting good people from bad things can be incredibly difficult and tragically imperfect.  When contemplating whether or not to implement preparedness measures, leaders should consider the following decision-making possibilities:

  • Do nothing and hope nothing happens.
  • Do nothing and it does happen.
  • Do something and nothing happens.
  • Do something and it happens

SafePlans has a free eLearning course on this topic for K12 schools here.

About the author:
Brad Spicer is the founder of SafePlans, a leading provider of all-hazards preparedness solutions; including a DHS designated anti-terrorism technology and national active shooter prevention and survival program.



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