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The Safety of Voting in November

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The coronavirus pandemic continues as Americans begin to focus on Election Day 2020. Much of the energy this year has focused on providing safe options to vote, including voting by mail. But there are increasingly vocal arguments that voting in person can be perfectly safe, too. Here’s what in person voters need to know to stay healthy as they exercise their right to vote.

Experts are constantly learning more about this novel strain of coronavirus. To keep you safe, BPC continuously updates its summary of information about the virus as new information arises. We know that COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets that transfer from person to person during breathing, coughing, or speaking. There is also a possibility of contracting the virus from a frequently touched surface that has virus particles on it, then touching your face. These are all risks voters face when at a polling place that has not taken the proper safety precautions.

Though polling places tend to be relatively small, voters can be there longer than 15 minutes and will touch voting equipment that hundreds or thousands of others have touched before. Physical distancing, wearing a mask, good hand hygiene, and knowing your particular risk of severe illness is essential to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus. Following these guidelines can make voting as safe as going to a supermarket. Good prevention practices are vital in this situation.

In the Spring, election administrators scrambled during the primaries as the risks of COVID-19 became increasingly clear. Since then, the CDC has released recommendations to keep voters and poll workers safe for in-person voting. It boils down to offering voters more options for how to cast their ballots, stocking up on PPE and hand sanitizer, and adding regular disinfection of frequently touched surfaces to poll workers’ responsibilities.

It is important to note that the pandemic disproportionately impacts communities of color. BPC has documented that black voters tend to wait far longer in lines to vote on Election Day. Our data comes from the 2018 federal election when there was no presidential contest on the ballot and thus turnout was lower than we might expect in 2020. In 2018, voters in precincts with 10% or fewer black voters waited on average just 5.1 minutes to vote. For voters in precincts composed of more than 90% black voters, the average wait time was 32.4 minutes. Because of these factors, it’s critical that these communities feel safe and secure while casting their vote.

Mail voting is one of the safest options from a health perspective, but voters must pay close attention to deadlines and requirements for mail in ballots and early voting in their state. Another benefit of increased mail in voting is that it reduces the number of in-person voters, which should allow for more social distancing at the polls. Just as social distancing was key to flattening the curve of the virus early on, spreading out voters across mail, early, and Election Day voting can keep the volume of ballots manageable while keeping people safe.

Election administrators can take proper precautions to ensure safety for voters and poll workers. Which includes arranging polling places in a way to maximize physical distancing, limiting the number of voters casting a ballot at any one time, and offering hand sanitizer. It also requires poll workers to disinfect all frequently touched surfaces, shared objects, and all voting equipment between each voter. Some election administrators have creative solutions for larger polling places, such as partnerships with sports teams and team owners to use empty stadiums as polling places in the fall, which can help with physical distancing. Even with the ability to use these spaces, proper sanitization techniques still must be used.

Voters share the responsibility to keep voting safe in November. Every voter should wear a mask if they plan to go to the polls. This action protects fellow voters and the poll workers who have volunteered to sit in an enclosed polling place for as long as 15 hours on Election Day. Voters should practice good hand hygiene (washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before going to a polling place) and use hand sanitizer whenever they come into contact with shared spaces and surfaces. If you are healthy and able, volunteering to be a poll worker yourself can help administrators keep more polling sites open.

Voters must also come prepared to vote. Make sure to verify your voter registration, where your polling place is, and bring any necessary documents you may need. It will improve your voting experience and decrease the likelihood you will need to cast a provisional ballot, which will slow down the line of voters behind you. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the contests on the ballot before heading to the polls. Anything you can do to keep your time in the polling place brief is better for you and your fellow voters.

This is not an easy time. We are in the heat of a contested election, a pandemic, and Americans still want to know that their vote will count. In-person can be a safe option this election, but make sure to assess your risk and comfort level. Arming yourself with the correct knowledge, being prepared, and following public health guidelines will ensure that everyone can vote safely this year.

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