Floyd County, Virginia uses ham radio for backup communication on Election Day

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As everybody who works in elections knows, you should expect the unexpected to happen on Election Day. Hopefully it’ll be something minor, like a small problem with poll workers or voting equipment. But what if it’s something major, like a flood, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake? How can you plan for something like that?

The Registrar’s office in Floyd County, Virginia offers one example. 

Amy Ingram, General Registrar for Floyd County, has created a contingency communication plan in the event that extreme weather or a natural disaster interferes with the normal lines of communication. Partnering with local amateur radio operators, Amy’s office has created a blueprint for coordinating polling places even if phone lines, mobile networks, and internet are down. 

Downtown Floyd, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Town of Floyd.

Downtown Floyd, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Town of Floyd.

Floyd County is situated about 30 miles southwest of Roanoke and 18 miles south of Blacksburg in Southwest Virginia. A rural county of rolling hills and cattle farming, it’s also home to a community of musicians and craftspeople who bring an artsy touch to the region. Floyd, the county seat, hosts FloydFest, an annual music and arts festival. Floyd County has just one traffic light, but it has nearly 11,000 registered voters who cast ballots at five polling places and a central absentee precinct. 

The need for a backup plan

In the last few years, Floyd County has felt the impact of several extreme natural events. “There was an earthquake and two tornadoes in Virginia that shut down phone lines and cell towers in recent years,” Amy explains. Fortunately these events didn’t happen close to Election Day, but they made Amy and her colleagues at the Registrar’s office wonder: what if they had? 

Amy realized that Floyd County elections needed a communications backup plan. “I wanted to have a way to contact the precincts in the event something did happen here on Election Day,” she says.

Floyd County’s late Emergency Services Director, Bobby Clark, was the one who took the initiative to create a partnership with local amateur radio operators. He found hams who volunteer for the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES. 

Bobby Clark (back left) poses with RACES volunteers Jason Gallimore (back right), Tom King (front left), and Dave Larsen (front right). Photo courtesy of Amy Ingram.

Bobby Clark (back left) poses with RACES volunteers Jason Gallimore (back right), Tom King (front left), and Dave Larsen (front right). Photo courtesy of Amy Ingram.

Created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, RACES provides support for government agencies in times of emergency. Jason Gallimore and Dee Wallace, who are volunteers with Floyd County’s RACES, explain that local radio operators get involved with the service because they have “a passion for radio communications and electronics” and “are looking for a way to better serve their community in times of need.”

According to Amy, getting the partnership off the ground wasn’t difficult. “A few planning meetings with the RACES group and the EMS director and we were ready to go,” she recalls. Current Emergency Services Director Kevin Sowers now oversees the RACES partnership in Floyd County.

Preparation and practice

In terms of emergency planning, the most important piece of the puzzle was figuring out the steps and strategy for what should happen on Election Day if communications are interrupted. Along with Bobby, Amy came up with a workable plan for deploying RACES volunteers to Floyd County’s polling places and, if needed, for performing an emergency precinct relocation. 

And since practice is always key for emergency preparation, RACES members perform drills and practice exercises in the weeks before every election. “The RACES group likes performing the Election Day exercise,” Amy explains, because “it gives them a time to practice and to fill a real need.”

Floyd County RACES volunteers Donna Johnson, Tom King, and Dave Larsen. Photo by Amy Ingram.

Floyd County RACES volunteers Donna Johnson, Tom King, and Dave Larsen. Photo by Amy Ingram.

Floyd County hasn’t had to rely on RACES for communications on Election Day yet, but the partnership has already been successful as far as Amy is concerned. “It was a success from the first time we implemented the service,” she observes. “The Officers of Election feel confident knowing if they can’t reach my office by phone on Election Day, the RACES group will be arriving at the precinct to set up communication.” 

Amateurs can be indispensable 

Amy admits that she didn’t know much about amateur radio until she got exposed to RACES, but she says that getting to know this local group of volunteers has convinced her that ham radio “is still a valid service” -- even in the age of smartphones and Facebook. 

Of course, this is something hams are well aware of. “Even as technology has progressed,” explain Jason and Dee, “the importance and purpose of amateur radio communications has stayed the same. Oftentimes, amateur radio communications are the only communications that work, particularly during times of natural disaster or communication grid failures.”

In short, ham radio’s simplicity and flexibility make it work when other platforms don’t. 

Are you interested in forming a partnership with an amateur radio group in your area? ARRL, the national association for amateur radio, maintains a directory of amateur radio organizations around the country, including sections of RACES and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, or ARES. It’s a great place to begin.

In addition, Amy has also offered to speak with election officials who are considering amateur radio as a communications backup. You can reach out to her at aingram@floydcova.org.

Finally, if Amy’s story has gotten you thinking about how well your election office is prepared to communicate during an emergency, check out our latest tech tutorial: Emergency Communication Guidelines

What kinds of emergency preparation have you implemented in your election office? Share your ideas with others by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org