How to Vote Safely in Person During COVID-19 Times
If you plan ahead, you can protect your health while doing your part to keep democracy alive.
Never mind the usual Election Day hurdles: finding a parking spot at your voting site, waiting in line. This year, the pandemic has made voting for president trickier by several orders of magnitude.
With COVID-19 infection rates rising in many states, mailing in your ballot instead of voting in person may sound like the safest move, at least from a health standpoint. But if the political heat around mail-in ballots has you wondering if voting in person is the best way to make your voice heard, how do you do it safely?
Beverly Mihalko, PhD, an epidemiologist and an associate professor of health sciences at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, says that even though she requested a mail-in ballot, she changed her mind: “I’m going to go to the polls. I don’t feel unsafe about voting if I’m using the layered approach: a clean mask — making sure it fits well — along with physical distancing and hand sanitizer.”
Whether you’re prepared to do the same largely depends on your own level of risk tolerance, which may be affected by where you live. But the good news is that if you plan ahead, you can protect your health while doing your part in the democratic process. Here are the questions to consider before you make your decision.
Consider What’s at Stake and Your Relative Risk
Voting at the polls during the pandemic is similar to other public activities, like shopping in a supermarket, that keep you indoors surrounded by other people for a certain period of time.
“It really helps to benchmark the risks against other risks you accept daily,” says Nina Fefferman, PhD, an epidemiologist, biologist, and the director of the One Health Initiative at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We’re all pretty comfortable getting into cars, but cars are quite dangerous. So remind yourself that there are risks you accept every day, as long as it’s worth it. COVID-19 is scary, but so is no longer living in a democracy.”
Dr. Fefferman says she plans to vote in person, too, even though she lives with someone in a higher-risk category. For others in the same situation, she adds, it’s worth “trying to be more careful for the 7- to 14-day window [after voting], and trying to get tested.” But, she adds, “That’s my own assessment, and I wouldn’t presume to make it for anyone else.”
Assess Your Local COVID-19 Situation
In evaluating the safest way to vote, you might want to consider the COVID-19 positivity rate in your community — the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive. The higher the number, the greater the odds of coronavirus exposure at a public place like a polling site.
Mask wearing, along with other measures like social distancing and hand hygiene, can go a long way toward mitigating this risk. In states that require face coverings, the possibility of coronavirus exposure at polling sites will be lessened, especially if those requirements are followed and enforced.
Currently, 33 states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico require face coverings by state order. But keep in mind that in some places the state orders are being contested and overturned in court.
“The Supreme Court in the state of Michigan just decided that the governor’s emergency powers are unconstitutional, so now there’s no mandatory mask wearing,” says Dr. Mihalko, who lives in Michigan. “But people are still wearing masks to walk outside in the community where I live.”
Vote in Person Before Election Day if You Can
Getting to the polls before November 3 might give you the best possible chance of finding shorter lines and a quicker, safer overall process.
Most states are offering early in-person voting before Election Day. Check your local election guidelines for the locations, dates, and times when polls will be open for early voting. FiveThirtyEight is keeping an updated list of which states are allowing early voting, and on which days.
The states that will not offer early in-person voting are Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.
Instead, those states are offering absentee voting in-person, so you can still hand-deliver your ballot but avoid long lines.
In some states, certain counties may offer early voting in person if they opt to do so. Those states currently include Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. Check with your local election office for the latest updates and details on your county.
Vote Early in the Day on November 3 to Avoid Crowds
In response to the pandemic, some states are consolidating polling locations or directing people to countywide voting centers instead of neighborhood polling sites. This has the potential to cause long lines and crowds.
Crowding in poorly ventilated indoor spaces poses the greatest coronavirus hazard, says Fefferman: “As you cycle more and more people through an environment, and as we come to believe that aerosols pose a risk, when a lot of people are coming through in a short amount of time, there’s not a guarantee that you will avoid COVID transmission even if you’re trying to stay socially distanced and wear a mask. In states where there are few opportunities to vote and where a large portion of people have to show up in the district over a short period of time, those are the most risky.”
Going to the voting site early in the day can be one way to reduce risk, and to give yourself more flexibility. “Maybe try to go early in the morning, so if you find a long line you might have the luxury to go back later in the day,” says Fefferman. Your best bet is to show up at a time when you can find crowd levels “of a density like you’d find in a supermarket,” she adds.
What Extra Safety Precautions Can You Take When You Go to Vote?
It bears repeating that in any situation, you can lower your coronavirus risk by keeping your mask on, social distancing, and maintaining hand hygiene — cleaning your hands before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, or after touching a door knob or anything else other people frequently handle.
But there are a few special strategies you may want to employ when voting:
Be Antisocial: When you’re standing in line, says Mihalko, “avoid talking to other people. Bring headphones instead. If you’re just standing there wearing a mask and not talking, you won’t be sharing any droplets.”
Be Diplomatic: While you’re standing in line, Mihalko says, “Use common sense, and pay attention to what’s around you. If someone is creeping up on you, ask them to go ahead of you. You don’t want someone breathing down your neck, and you don’t want to start a fight.”
Leave the Kids at Home: “I’d also recommend that people not bring young children if possible. Kids will get restless and start wandering around,” Mihalko says.
Pack a Few Supplies: “If you’re going to be in line for four hours, or if it could be raining, you might want to bring a second mask in case the first one gets wet or soiled — or if you’re having allergy problems,” says Mihalko.
“I’d bring your own hand sanitizer too,” she adds. “Use it as soon as you vote, and after you’ve had to go through some doors, and again after you leave, just as you would after shopping. And bring your own pen so you don’t have to worry about theirs.”
In case you’re waiting for a while and might need a snack, Mihalko advises, “Bring something that comes wrapped, like a granola bar — nothing you’d have to feed to yourself with your bare hands.”
Maintain Your Resolve: Lastly, Mihalko says, no matter how you decide to cast your ballot, “Please vote. Exercise your right. Many people are struggling to exercise their right to vote, and we don’t want unfounded fear to preclude the vote that you would likely cast. Think about it rationally. There are a lot of yahoos who will do anything to take away our right to vote.”
Gilman, S., Millard, E., DiGregorio, S., Gilman, S., Upham, B., & Scherer, L. (2020, October 19). Voting Safely in Person During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Everyday Health. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/coronavirus/how-to-vote-safely-in-covid-19-times/?slot=0