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How to Ensure that Americans Can Vote in Person Safely During Covid-19

The Brennan Center and the Infectious Disease Society of America have released a detailed guide for making polling places as healthy as possible during the pandemic.

August 12, 2020
Michael B. Thomas/Getty

With just three months to Elec­tion Day, there is little reason to believe the Covid-19 pandemic will “go away” before the 2020 general elec­tion. Consequently, there is lots of work to be done to make sure polling places across the coun­try are safe come Novem­ber. Many voters are used to voting in person and will not be will­ing or able to vote by mail. These voters need healthy in-person voting options this year.

With debate raging about safety precau­tions in areas from school reopen­ing to profes­sional sports, clear, evid­ence-based inform­a­tion about how to safely conduct in-person voting at polling places in Novem­ber is crit­ical to our nation’s well-being. Accord­ingly, the Bren­nan Center has partnered with the Infec­tious Disease Soci­ety of Amer­ica (IDSA) to release Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting. The Centers for Disease Control has also issued recom­mend­a­tions for elec­tion polling loca­tions, which we suggest review­ing.

Our Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting draw from the Bren­nan Center’s expert­ise in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, and the inde­pend­ent, inter­dis­cip­lin­ary know­ledge of the more than 12,000 infec­tious diseases phys­i­cians, public health offi­cials, epidemi­olo­gists, and research­ers that make IDSA one of the nation’s pree­m­in­ent medical organ­iz­a­tions.

Among our recom­mend­a­tions, the Bren­nan Center and IDSA advise counties to work with public health depart­ments to develop a system for poll work­ers to check for any symp­toms before their shifts and to ensure that the public is being monitored for spread. This might include personal health surveys to ensure work­ers are not exhib­it­ing symp­toms of Covid-19, free Covid-19 test­ing for poll work­ers prior to and/or follow­ing their shifts, and expan­ded test­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for people who voted in person.

Another key element of safe and healthy in-person voting is ensur­ing there are adequate numbers of in-person voting loca­tions. In primary elec­tions this year, some juris­dic­tions suffered wide­spread polling place clos­ures because of the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, in Milwau­kee 180 polling places were reduced to only 5 loca­tions open on Elec­tion Day. A recent report by the Bren­nan Center found that voters with fewer polling places per voter repor­ted longer wait times to cast their ballots. In the past, long wait times were disrupt­ive and disen­fran­chising, but now, amid a pandemic, they could also be deadly.

Relatedly, we recom­mend that counties use voting loca­tions that are well vent­il­ated and can accom­mod­ate social distan­cing meas­ures. Offi­cials should also avoid recir­cu­la­tion of contam­in­ated air and facil­it­ate increased air flow in these loca­tions by maxim­iz­ing the HVAC capa­city and using air filtra­tion systems. Of course, in the event of a voting loca­tion change, voters should imme­di­ately be given indi­vidu­al­ized notice of the change, with a second notice to be given within weeks of the Novem­ber elec­tion. And if polling places are moved out of senior care facil­it­ies or other resid­en­tial sites, plans should be imple­men­ted to ensure that the resid­ents of those facil­it­ies are able to cast a ballot.

Inside voting loca­tions, surfaces will need to be sanit­ized to prevent trans­mis­sion of the virus. This means poll work­ers should regu­larly (approx­im­ately every four hours) clean bath­rooms and frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles. In addi­tion, work­ers should sanit­ize voting booth surfaces, includ­ing voting machines, after each use.

The most crit­ical piece of guid­ance in the Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting is that cast­ing a ballot in person in Novem­ber can be done safely, without endan­ger­ing voters’ health. However, this will require care­ful and proact­ive plan­ning on the part of elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors, as well adequate fund­ing from federal and state offi­cials. The 2020 elec­tion is shap­ing up be a defin­ing moment for our demo­cracy. No voter should have to choose between their safety and their funda­mental right to vote in Novem­ber — and with the right policies, plan­ning, and prac­tices in place they won’t have to.

Click here for the full guidelines