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Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting

Summary: The Brennan Center and the Infectious Diseases Society of America have issued joint guidelines to minimize the risk of transmitting Covid-19 at the polls this November.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
  • Infectious Diseases Society of America
Published: August 12, 2020
The Washington Post /Getty


The coronavirus pandemic is not going away before Elec­tion Day. While voting by mail is the safest option to avoid Covid-19 trans­mis­sion, some indi­vidu­als will be unable or unwill­ing to vote in this manner. Clear, evid­ence-based inform­a­tion about how to safely conduct in-person voting at polling places in Novem­ber is more crit­ical than ever. Accord­ingly, the Bren­nan Center has partnered with the Infec­tious Diseases Soci­ety of Amer­ica (IDSA) to release Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting.

The docu­ment provides common-sense inform­a­tion on a range of topics, includ­ing voting loca­tion siting and config­ur­a­tion, supplies to prevent Covid-19 trans­mis­sion, and poll worker precau­tions to protect voters and work­ers alike. Our guidelines draw from 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, as well as from the Bren­nan Center’s expert­ise in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. The Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) has also issued recom­mend­a­tions for elec­tion polling loca­tions, which we suggest review­ing.

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 will not have to.

General Guidance

  • In-person voting can be conduc­ted safely if juris­dic­tions take the neces­sary steps to minim­ize the risk of trans­mis­sion of Covid-19 to voters and elec­tion work­ers. To the extent permiss­ible under public health mandates, juris­dic­tions that offer polling place voting must continue to do so.
  • Juris­dic­tions should meet regu­larly with health experts and their local health depart­ments to ensure health prac­tices are respons­ive to the current state of the Covid-19 pandemic in their juris­dic­tion.
  • In addi­tion, elec­tion offi­cials should review the latest Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) guid­ance for prevent­ing trans­mis­sion of Covid-19 at in-person voting loca­tions.

Polling Place Siting

  • Prepar­a­tions should be made now to modify polling place siting decisions to account for Covid-19. Wherever possible, juris­dic­tions should avoid decreas­ing the over­all number of voting loca­tions and should consider expand­ing the number of voting loca­tions for Novem­ber, in order to avoid over­crowding at voting sites.
  • Polling places sited in build­ings that primar­ily serve communit­ies iden­ti­fied as high risk for seri­ous Covid-19 illness, such as senior care facil­it­ies, must be relo­cated.
  • Wherever possible, voting loca­tions should be relo­cated to spaces that are well-vent­il­ated and can accom­mod­ate social distan­cing meas­ures, includ­ing adequate space between voting privacy booths. Some examples of these spaces include
    • school gymnas­i­ums;
    • community recre­ation centers;
    • conven­tion centers; and
    • large park­ing lots (where weather permits).
  • Wherever possible, voting loca­tions should have separ­ate points of entry and exit to optim­ize infec­tion control prac­tices and to minim­ize crowds form­ing in the space.
  • In the event of a 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.
  • In determ­in­ing modi­fic­a­tions to polling loca­tion plans, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials must assess the impact of voting changes on vulner­able communit­ies and ensure that polling place loca­tion changes increase, not limit, access­ib­il­ity for racial and language minor­ity voters, students, voters with disab­il­it­ies, and indi­vidu­als displaced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Healthy Polling Places

  • Voters should take proact­ive steps to keep voting loca­tions safe and healthy, includ­ing
    • wear­ing a mask to the voting loca­tion, but polling places should provide free masks to all voters in the event a voter does not arrive with a mask and should strongly encour­age voters to wear a mask while cast­ing a ballot;
    • main­tain­ing social distan­cing of at least six feet from other voters and poll work­ers; and
    • avoid­ing bring­ing any unne­ces­sary persons, such as chil­dren or other non-voting eligible family members, to the voting loca­tion.
  • To comply with social distan­cing policies, polling places will require recon­fig­ur­a­tion to allow substan­tial space between voting privacy booths, distance between poll work­ers, etc. This means
    • where possible, polling place check-in stations should be set up in a desig­nated area separ­ated from the voting space, with a plexi­glass barrier between the voter and the poll worker;
    • work­ers should use tape or other semi-perman­ent mark­ers to mark six-foot distances in lines and at polling place tables; and
    • tape should also be used to hang signs in polling places and to mark desig­nated areas at the poll­book table where voters will be required to show iden­ti­fic­a­tion.
  • To facil­it­ate increased air flow and avoid recir­cu­la­tion of contam­in­ated air, HVAC capa­city of voting loca­tions should be maxim­ized and, where possible, air filtra­tion systems should be used.
  • Polling places will need to be sanit­ized to prevent trans­mis­sion of the virus. This means poll work­ers should
    • regu­larly clean frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, voting booths, and bath­rooms (approx­im­ately every four hours);
    • use alco­hol-based hand sanit­izer or wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, per CDC guidelines;
    • clean and disin­fect voting machines and other equip­ment;
    • sanit­ize voting booth surface after each use;
    • have hand sanit­izer avail­able before people enter the voting area (and can even offer to spray voters’ hands); and
    • have disin­fect­ant wipes to clean down voting area.
  • Polling places should be equipped with neces­sary sanit­a­tion products, includ­ing:
    • alco­hol-based hand sanit­izer;
    • hand sanit­iz­ing stations, avail­able upon entry and exit;
    • mobile hand­wash­ing stations with soap, water, and dispos­able drying mater­i­als; and
    • disin­fec­tion wipes.
  • Proced­ures should be estab­lished to ensure that hand sanit­izer use does not jam ballot scan­ners.
  • Ballot-mark­ing proced­ures should be estab­lished to minim­ize viral trans­mis­sion. For instance
    • voters should be provided with dispos­able pens or pencils to mark paper ballots; or
    • Q-tips, finger covers, or other dispos­able devices should be used to mark votes, instead of voters using their fingers.
  • Curb­side voting options should be made avail­able, espe­cially for voters with disab­il­it­ies or illnesses who may not be able to leave their vehicles.
    • Voters who arrive at the polling place and are feel­ing unwell or exhib­it­ing Covid-19 symp­toms should be encour­aged to use curb­side voting to minim­ize expos­ure inside the voting loca­tion.
    • Voters using curb­side options should have assist­ance provided to them in a manner that preserves inde­pend­ence, autonomy, and ballot secrecy.

Healthy Poll Workers

  • Juris­dic­tions should increase efforts to recruit poll work­ers and recruit a surplus of poll work­ers for elec­tions, espe­cially from segments of the popu­la­tion who are not at high risk from Covid-19.
  • Admin­is­trat­ors should consult with a stake­holder work­ing group, and partic­u­larly community repres­ent­at­ives, to recruit both mono­lin­gual and bilin­gual poll work­ers.
  • Juris­dic­tions should recruit more mono­lin­gual and bilin­gual poll work­ers than needed for Elec­tion Day to account for poten­tial absences due to sick­ness or fear of Covid-19.
  • All voting and public health mater­i­als should be offered in multiple languages.
  • All poll work­ers should be provided with personal protect­ive equip­ment (PPE), includ­ing surgical face masks and gloves.
  • Addi­tional PPE should be provided to poll work­ers who are serving as the curb­side voting assist­ant. These work­ers should be provided with
    • face shields;
    • surgical face masks; and
    • gloves.
  • Juris­dic­tions should 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 their shifts and/or follow­ing their shifts; and
    • expan­ded test­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for voters who voted in person.
  • Resource plans should also account for online or webinar-based train­ings of poll work­ers.
  • Juris­dic­tions should work with local public health depart­ments to provide a compre­hens­ive poll worker safety manual and train­ing program. Poll work­ers should receive train­ing on relev­ant topics, such as
    • proper proced­ures for remov­ing used gloves and masks;
    • proper proced­ures for hand wash­ing;
    • proper proced­ures for sanit­iz­ing vari­ous frequently-used surfaces in the polling place; and
    • proper proced­ures for inter­act­ing with voters or poll work­ers who appear symp­to­matic or feel unwell.