Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Poll Workers Offered ‘Active Shooter’ Training

I volunteered to be a poll worker. Little did I know how things had changed.

By - Nov 7th, 2022 12:39 pm
Vote here. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Vote here. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Now that I’m retired, I decided to invest in democracy by volunteering to be a poll worker at my polling place this year. The training was interesting; it takes a surprising number of keys to unlock those machines that swallow and count your completed ballot.

But the biggest surprise was getting an email from my local clerk, one of 1,851 local officials and 72 county clerks who conduct Wisconsin elections under the supervision of the State Elections Commission, asking this: Do you want to attend “active shooter” training before tomorrow’s election?

Whoa. Really?

I had to think about that. What did the offer say about the state of our democracy? What did Benjamin Franklin say, when asked what the Constitution crafted by the Founding Fathers created? “A republic, if you can keep it.”

With such thoughts in my mind, I joined almost 20 other volunteer poll workers for an hour-long session led by a Dane County deputy sheriff and a retired deputy. They estimated that about 24,000 Dane County residents have attended similar sessions in schools, hospitals, businesses, churches and – yes – polling places. “This information may be disturbing and upsetting to you,” Deputy Josalyn Longley advised. “But it’s about real events that are happening in many municipalities just like yours.”

It’s tragic, the deputy added, but the increasing number of violent and potentially violent incidents have taught law officers the importance of training sessions. “I want to leave my citizens empowered…A lot of people are walking around with hairpin triggers.”

Two important things to start with:

First, be “situationally aware – pay more attention to what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing,” she stressed. Any suspicious vehicles? Does anyone appear to be “scoping” the place out or asking about building operations, security procedures, timing of shift changes? Is anyone entering wearing several layers of clothes, perhaps concealing a weapon? Do you know the address of your polling place, in case you’re asked for it in a 911 call?

Second, start “mental scripting – ‘if this, then that’.” Develop response or escape options, based on your environment. Game out a way to survive. Why? Because the most natural response is to “freeze up…[but] the body can’t go where the mind hasn’t been.”

Now, some tips to “verbally de-escalate” someone who is angry. But remember, “Reasoning with an enraged person is not possible.”

If they’re angry, “do not touch or attempt to restrain them.” Instead, try to get them away from any crowd. “Communicate the process” – how voting works and what rules you and your fellow poll workers are simply trying to follow. Keep an even tone in your voice. “Actively listen” — maintain eye contact, do not be distracted, smile, repeat or “mirror” what they are saying.

“Control your behavior to control theirs…Manage me first.”

Warning signs that someone may become violent include sweating, trembling or shaking, exaggerated or violent gestures, refusing to make eye contact, clenched jaw or fists and shallow, rapid or heavy breathing.

Finally, if the situation turns violent, shout out the threat and RUN-HIDE-FIGHT.

“This is a life skill…Get out.”

If you RUN, run in a zig-zag path, because you’re a more difficult target for a shooter. Look for cover and conceal yourself behind something massive, like a vehicle engine block. If you can’t get out a door, break a window and jump out; the corner of a window is its weakest point.

If you HIDE, enter a room, closet or other space and try to lock, secure and barricade the door with anything available. Silence your cell phone. Shooters know they only have minutes before officers arrive, so they quickly move on to the next door if they find one locked. Survival odds go up if you buy yourself just three more minutes, the FBI says.

“If I don’t hear you, and I don’t see you, you don’t exist.”

If you FIGHT – a “last resort” – attempt to distract the assailant, use any weapon available and try to break up their “visual field” in some way, disrupting their plans.

“You can survive injury. Tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to die today. I’m going home’.”

Then, there was this thought that occurred to me: If you’re the poll worker who greets voters, directing them to those who are registering them, are you the first, uh, potential target?

At home, it all had to be pondered over a pre-dinner brandy Old Fashioned. An extra strong one.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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