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Although voting by mail or putting your ballot in a drop box remains the surest way to minimize exposure to COVID-19 while exercising your right as a citizen, many will choose to vote in person—either during the early voting period or on Election Day itself, Nov. 3.
If you’re one of those people, what do you need to know to make the experience as safe as possible?
To start, understand that a lot depends on how closely local election officials follow safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, as well as state-level guidance.
Encouragingly, most are doing their part, says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “I’ve talked to local election officials in many states, and we’re seeing a lot of protections being put in place,” he says.
Among them: Small polling places, where social distancing is harder, are being rejected in favor of larger—and in some cases very large—venues; poll workers are being trained to manage lines, minimize crowding, and disinfect surfaces; and facilities are being equipped with plexiglass shields, hand-sanitizer dispensers, disposable pens, and plenty of face masks.
But regardless of the protocols being used in any particular voting place, there are steps that all in-person voters can take to minimize their personal risk.
Understand the risks
It’s important to recognize the various ways COVID-19 spreads and the behaviors associated with them. Our understanding of these matters has changed in recent weeks, and the implications for in-person voters are significant.
The CDC on Oct. 5 acknowledged what had been a growing consensus among scientists: That COVID-19 spreads not just via relatively large droplets (the kind we expel when we cough or sneeze, and which generally fall to the ground within seconds) or when we touch a contaminated surface (and then touch our nose, mouth, or eyes), but also via tiny airborne aerosol particles that emerge when we talk or exhale and can remain suspended in the air for minutes or hours.
In fact, a growing number of public health and infectious disease experts now suspect that airborne aerosols could be the primary mode by which COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person.
The CDC has also acknowledged that transmission via surfaces is no longer thought to be a primary way the virus spreads.
That being the case, COVID transmission is most likely in two scenarios, says Jose-Luis Jimenez, PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder who conducts research on aerosols. One is when people interact face-to-face; the second when they are in an enclosed or poorly ventilated space together and breathing the same air for an extended period of time.
The upshot: Minimizing these situations—and guarding again transmission when they’re unavoidable—should be the focus of your precautions.
Plan to Vote Early if You Can
One way to minimize the time you spend at your polling place is to avoid the rush. So if your state is one of the 43 that allow for early in-person voting—and if that option is still available—take advantage of it.
Flexibility is another benefit of early voting, notes Becker: If your polling place is extremely crowded even on early voting days, and you’ve built in a time buffer before Election Day, you can choose to come back at another opportunity.
Early voting dates and times vary by state, beginning anywhere from about 45 days to a week before Election Day and typically ending a few days before. About half the states allow early voting on weekends. You can check your own state’s schedule using this table maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, or through the NASS Can I Vote? page.
If you have no choice but to vote on Election Day, at least try to show up during off-peak times. The middle of the day tends to be best, says Becker of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. Definitely avoid the end-of-the-day rush if you can.
Start Your Preparations at Home
A little advance work can also help minimize your time at the polling station. Avoid potential delays by verifying from home where you'll be voting and that your voter registration info is correct (both of which you can do here) and by having any necessary forms and identification with you when you arrive.
To help you vote quickly once you have your ballot in hand, review a sample ballot from home to ensure you understand how to fill it out. Ballots can change in format, and the voting booth isn’t the place you want to spend extra time deciphering how to accurately pick your candidates of choice. (Find sample ballots here or through your local election office’s website.) And do any additional research required to help you decide your votes in advance—especially if you’ll be voting in lower-profile local and state-level races as well as for president, or if you’ll be faced with densely worded ballot initiatives or referendums.
Almost any mask is better than none, but the likelihood that you’ll need to spend at least some time with fellow voters in an enclosed, indoor space makes it especially important to have an effective mask that fits you properly.
Here are the basics to keep in mind:
Masks with two or more layers of densely woven (but breathable) fabric are best.
Masks should completely cover your nose and mouth, fit snugly against the sides of your face, and not have any gaps.
Skip masks with valves or vents, which allow virus particles to escape.
N95 and surgical masks are effective but not necessary for general use, and according to the CDC should generally be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.
Even while wearing a mask, you should still maintain social distance.
Finally, take an extra 5 minutes before you leave home to make sure your mask fits properly, says Jimenez. “Stand in front of a mirror to make sure it covers your mouth and nose and that it’s fitting snugly.”
When You Arrive at the Polls
Hopefully, your local election officials have planned for crowds and will enable most of your waiting time to be spent outdoors or in large, well-ventilated spaces. COVID can be transmitted outside, but it’s unlikely if you are maintaining social distance and wearing an effective mask.
For that reason, you shouldn’t be discouraged if you find a long line outside your polling place, as long as the people in it are masked and spaced at least 6 feet apart. Long lines may be an indication that indoor crowds are being safely kept to a minimum. You could be waiting outside for up to several hours, perhaps in foul weather, so remember to wear appropriate shoes and clothing, and bring gear (like an umbrella), that will protect you.
How much time inside a polling station is too much? There’s no single answer to that, says Jimenez, because the size of a space, the number of people in it, the quality of the ventilation, as well as the amount of time you and other voters spend inside, all affect the concentration of aerosols.
Instead of setting a time limit, he says, focus on whether there’s enough room inside for everyone to remain 6 feet apart, on whether people are wearing masks, and on casting your vote and departing as quickly as possible.
Follow Other Best Practices
Even given what we now know about aerosol transmission, it remains important to protect yourself and others from other modes of transmission as well, by also following these best practices:
If possible, wash your hands thoroughly before and after you vote
Use hand sanitizer often, especially after coming in contact with high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and voting machines
Avoid touching your face
Skip the gloves. Experts now feel that they give untrained users a false sense of security and are frequently mishandled; instead, use sanitizer—or, better yet, wash your hands thoroughly—after using something like a communal pen
Consider bringing your own black pen (or if your precinct uses electronic voting machines, a stylus) so you don’t have to use one that has been touched by other voters
Keep your voice down. Compared to ordinary breathing, talking increases the flow of aerosols from our mouths 10-fold, says Jimenez; singing or shouting increases it 50-fold
Report Voter Intimidation
A highly polarized electorate and the deeply contentious nature of this year’s presidential election may have some voters concerned about the potential for voter intimidation.
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at the Georgetown University Law Center has prepared a fact sheet (as well as state-specific fact sheets) on how to protect yourself from voter intimidation and what to do if you witness it. But the key points are worth listing here.
First, voter intimidation is illegal. Such intimidation is defined as activity “intended to compel prospective voters to vote against their preferences, or to not vote at all, through activity that is reasonably calculated to instill fear.”
Determining whether any particular behavior constitutes voter intimidation depends partly on the context and to some extent on state laws, according to ICAP. But activities that courts would likely deem illegal include:
violent behavior inside or outside a polling site
verbal threats of violence
confronting voters while wearing military-style or official-looking uniforms
spreading false information about voter fraud or voting requirements
disrupting voting lines or blocking the entrance to a polling place
following voters to, from, or within the polling place
aggressively questioning voters about their qualifications to vote
Further, according to the ICAP, nearly every state has a law prohibiting electioneering, which includes soliciting votes or handing out literature on a candidate, in the immediate vicinity of the polls, and such laws have been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Finally, if you believe you are witnessing or experiencing voter intimidation, notify any on-site election officials, document what's happening in real-time by taking photos with your phone and collecting witness contact info, and call the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Election Protection, which maintains a 24-hour telephone hotline at 866-687-8683.