Every four years, on the first Tuesday in November, the vast machinery underpinning our democracy rolls into gear. Local election commissions prepare ballots and voting places, while volunteers greet throngs of voters helping Americans exercise their fundamental right to vote. In the best cases, what follows is almost celebratory — bake sales, colorful signs and enthusiastic poll workers greeting you with a smile and an “I voted” sticker to wear proudly as you exit the polling location.
Every four years, on the first Tuesday in November, the vast machinery underpinning our democracy rolls into gear.
The pandemic has turned this inside out and upside down. With less than a month to go, voting rights are being suppressed and restricted while officials hide behind the specters of Covid-19 and purported voting fraud (for which there is scant evidence at best). With early voting already under way in many states, questions remain about how and when to vote safely. The recent Covid-19 diagnosis and hospitalization of President Donald Trump — and a growing list of people associated with his White House — has left Americans stunned, furthering anxiety and raising concerns even higher.
While many Americans are opting to vote by mail, millions of Americans will choose or need to vote in person. For those who will be voting in person, overseeing the election or staffing polling stations, here are some precautions to take to ensure voting is as safe as possible.
So how can individual Americans safely vote in person?
While perhaps not widely known — perhaps because it’s rarely viewed as a necessity — many states allow you to vote early in person. Obviously in the 2020 election, the value of voting early has grown. On top of convenience, early voters will help those who vote on Election Day by reducing big crowds. They will also help poll workers rehearse for safe and efficient voting, previewing the unique challenges (e.g., physical distancing, sanitizing) that can emerge due to the pandemic.
Every voter must take public health precautions to decrease risk. This means preparing a personal kit with scraps of paper (to handle doorknobs and surfaces); a pencil and pen; registration card or identification card; hand sanitizer and tissues; and perhaps a book or something to pass the time if lines develop. Wear a mask and check to make sure yours is protecting your nose and mouth by following this simple test. If possible, use scraps of paper or tissues to handle doorknobs or common surfaces and use hand sanitizer or wash hands frequently. Maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others at all times. And if you use hand sanitizer, make sure it is dry before handling electronic voting machines to avoid damaging the equipment.
In prior years, a majority of poll workers were over 60. Given the significantly greater risks that this demographic faces from Covid-19, many previous workers and volunteers are staying safe at home. While groups like Power the Polls are making strides in finding younger replacements, there is still no question that working at the polls poses risk, particularly given the fact that volunteers will spend the day indoors with exposure to many potential carriers of the virus.
This means it will be on American voters to protect poll workers by staying home if they feel sick or have been in contact with someone suspected or confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Poll workers should also of course wash hands frequently, ensure physical distancing when possible and wear a protective mask. They must also understand how to clean and disinfect voting-associated equipment if necessary. It would be wise for poll workers to huddle briefly prior to start of the day to practice how they will handle unanticipated events by thinking through the possible scenarios.
It will be on American voters to protect poll workers by staying home if they feel sick or have been in contact with someone suspected or confirmed to be infected.
Election officials must add safety to their list of duties. Keeping workers, volunteers and voters feeling confident to vote safely is key; fast-moving lines will also help. It is important, for example, to identify potential bottlenecks in the voting process that will slow voting and to communicate average wait times at different times of day to help manage inflow and expectations. Researchers from Stanford and MIT have recently released best practices that experts say all local election commissions should closely study.
On top of the guidelines about mask wearing and social distancing, election workers need to help ensure volunteers are not working if they are sick, or if they have been exposed to someone who was sick. They need to provide top quality protective equipment including hand sanitizer and encourage frequent washing breaks and masks, including those that allow for lip reading.
On a bigger scale, voting places need to be designed to ensure proper sanitization, increase physical distancing, reduce physical barriers and ensure proper ventilation. And there needs to be a clear contingency plan in place for unexpected crises, for example: voter frustration at long waits.
We need to protect the vulnerable. We know that the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on African American, Latinx, Native American and elderly communities, and we also know that these communities typically face the largest barriers to voting. While progressive groups are already making special efforts to observe their polling places and document intimidation, election officials should also make special efforts to make sure that their facilities are as plentiful, accessible and safe as those in other communities. This means in some case arranging for safe transportation, expanded hours and free personal protective equipment, as is happening already through a coalition of organizations in North Carolina.
A lot can happen in several weeks, and already health experts are noticing troubling increases in Covid-19 cases around the country. Election officials must monitor local pandemic conditions just as they would natural disasters or early-season snow. Studying how the most effective leaders in other settings — like workplaces and schools — have managed the unfolding crisis should also be instructive.
It will be our collective actions that define our ability to emerge from Covid-19 stronger. But it will be our individual actions that allow for us to look at our fellow American and acknowledge our part in keeping each other safe and healthy, even as we make sure our voices are freely and fairly heard on Nov. 3.