Is it safe for Americans to go vote in person in the next presidential election? Your answer is largely informed by your definitions of keywords. Risk acceptance depends on accurate and relevant mental models, and those models require accurate definitions.
The first “Business English” definition for the word “security” in the Cambridge Dictionary is “the protection of people, organizations, countries, etc. against a possible attack or other crime.” Seems like that ought to be self-evident; we toss around the term “security” in business so often you’d think we’d all agree on its definition. In truth, though, it’s more common in the United States to define “security” by the first definition offered on American English focused dictionary.com: “freedom from danger, risk, etc.” That’s not quite the same thing, is it?
This is especially important for me today. America’s presidential election takes place on Tuesday, 3rd November 2020, and turnout is expected to be quite high. When I voted early, the lines to get into my city’s polling place wrapped all around the building. We’re expecting the lines on Election Day proper to be immense … That concerns me, since I’m a volunteer working the county polls this year.
In our last major election, the lines were long but there wasn’t a global pandemic raging out of control as an added challenge. This year there is. Bringing thousands of people into close contact in long queues was risky enough during an ordinary “flu season.” Now, with asymptomatic carriers infecting healthy people with just fifteen non-consecutive minutes of exposure, the prospect of thousands of people breathing on one another in an hours long queue is downright terrifying … and people are going to do it anyway because voting in this election is that important.
It’s a manageable risk, though. We can just order everyone to stand two metres apart at all times and to wear a mask … the same precautions we’ve been urged to follow all year. Easy. Reliable. Safe, even. Except … no. Not here. In Texas, our governor decided that mask wear would not be mandatory at voting sites. Per Texas Election Advisory No. 2020-19: “There is no authority under Texas law to require voters to wear face coverings when presenting to vote.” Note: I’m not taking a position on this ruling; only pointing to it as it relates to the concept of “security.”
During our training on how to setup the electronic voting equipment, one of the volunteers asked what we should do if a voter approached the check-in station without wearing a mask. Our instructor explained the law exactly as written: we’re allowed to offer the voter a mask, but we may not insist that they wear one. If someone wants to vote mask-less, they may.
As reporter Trinady Joslin wrote in The Texas Tribune, “… the sight of those maskless voters, eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, has surprised and alarmed some Texans, especially as face coverings are required in most public settings across the state.” I think Trinady understated the issue. Infection rates in the USA surged in October; that inspired many people to recalculate their odds of contracting COVID-19 and to change their activities to suit their personal risk tolerance. Perfectly normal, rational behaviour … for those activities that one can control. For people who didn’t vote early, 3rd November is their only remaining option to vote.
Again, I’m not arguing for or against this policy; I can’t take a side. I’m using it solely to make the point that our differing definitions of “security” can bite us when the chips are down.
If you ask, “do I feel secure enough to go vote in person on Election Day,” then the answer is going to be “yes” for many people if they’re using the Cambridge definition. Will the polling stations be reasonably “safe from attack or other crime”? I imagine that most cities will deploy police and city officials to safeguard their local polling places. The odds of being mugged while queueing to vote ought to be significantly lower at these locations than on any other day.
That’s fine for conventional models of “physical attack” … but what about COVID? Again, it comes down to parsing words. If you use what seems to me to be the most popular definition of the word “attack” in the Cambridge Dictionary – “a violent act intended to hurt or damage someone or something” – then the risk of having an infected person passing on their illness through breathing wouldn’t count as an “attack” since it’s not violence, per se. Even with a deliberate refusal to wear a mask, it’s probably not an act intended to cause harm.
If you ask the same question using the American definition, though, then physically visiting any polling place in Texas would not be considered “secure” since you can’t possibly be “free from danger, risk, etc.” so long as the coronavirus is still circulating. Further, you might be placing yourself at increased risk by being around so many strangers. Anyone in proximity to potentially infected people – masked or unmasked! – will be at risk of infection, full stop.
So, which is it? Will voting in person be secure “enough” to gamble on or not? Exasperatingly, this becomes an individual decision based on personal interpretation. That would be fine if the only risk involved was personal as well. Unfortunately, a risk accepted by one person becomes a risk imposed on everyone they come into contact with without their consent … and it’s a decision that hundreds of thousands of people must make on their own. If that sounds like an awful situation to put people in, it is … and it’s also something we do to people all the time.
Consider your workplace. Nearly every organisation has a security department or function that’s responsible for protecting the business (and, sometimes, the workers). We accept this as normal. Within every organisation, though, definition matter … especially when key leaders and critical stakeholders hold differing interpretations of what the “security” people are supposed to do. Are security people paid to keep the people or critical processes “free from danger” or “safe from attack?” Or both. Or something else entirely. Different mental models demand different strategic investments, operational mandates, and staffing. No one definition is necessarily wrong; danger arises from executives misunderstanding their security department’s strategic focus.
Fortunately, these problems are solvable: Corporate confusion can be sorted by operationally defining the security suborganisation’s primary mission focus and strategic priorities. Make it clear to everyone what the organisation views as crucial … and what it doesn’t. Pre-emptively eliminate the possibility of crossed wires so people can make informed, rational decisions.
As for the voting risk dilemma … that’s solvable, too, although in a slightly different way. On 29th October, James Barragán – writing for The Dallas Morning News – reported: “U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam on Tuesday struck down a section of Gov. Greg Abbott’s July 2 executive order that exempted people from wearing masks at polling locations, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act ‘because it creates a discriminatory burden on Black and Latino voters,’ who have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.” In a sense, this problem is also fixable through pre-emptive elimination of potential confusion. Change the rules, communicate the change, and empower the polling site staff to enforce a clear safety requirement.
In both cases, the trick to preventing potentially dangerous misunderstandings is to define your expectations and priorities up front and thereafter hold people accountable to abide by them. If your company isn’t already doing this, hop to it. As in America’s election, getting things sorted for everyone’s benefit should happen as soon as possible.
If all goes well, everyone will observe effective and practical safety precautions on Tuesday the 3rd and I’ll see you back here on TEISS in December. If things don’t go well … I hope it will have been worth it. Given all the factors in play, I’ve decided the potential outcome is worth the risk.