How to Vote in Person Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Jennifer Billock
Element5 Digital/Unsplash
Element5 Digital/Unsplash / Element5 Digital/Unsplash

We’re rapidly approaching Election Day 2020 on Tuesday, November 3. When you combine the stress of politics with the stress of voting during a pandemic, it’s a nightmare in the making. Will you get sick? Is mail-in voting ripe for fraud? These are questions you might be considering before heading to the polls. 

According to Jaline Gerardin, assistant professor of preventive medicine (epidemiology) at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, it’s less dangerous to vote in person than it is to go to the grocery store. Well, as long as you’re waiting in line outside. 

“If you’re waiting outdoors at your polling place, staying socially distanced and wearing your mask, [voting is] less dangerous than shopping indoors,” she tells Mental Floss. “But if you’re spending a lot of time indoors at the polling place, that could be slightly more dangerous than going to the grocery store. It depends on the indoor ventilation.”

Hopefully, queuing outdoors will be part of the safety measures your polling place has planned for Election Day. The CDC released guidelines in June with ways to keep polling places safe and sanitary. They include having hand sanitizer stations at every spot where a voter would touch something, encouraging poll workers to wash their hands regularly throughout the day and to cover coughs and sneezes, marking the entry-to-exit pathway to avoid bottlenecks, frequent surface disinfection, minimizing shared objects like pens, opening windows and doors to encourage fresh air circulation, increasing the distance between voting booths, and using plexiglass shields between voters and workers.

In addition to what your polling place will be doing, there are a few things Gerardin says you can do to decrease your chances of catching the coronavirus while voting. Wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer with you. If you touch anything with your bare hands, disinfect or wash them afterwards. Try going earlier in the morning when fewer people have come through the polling lines before you.

“The less crowded it is, the better,” Gerardin says. If you go at the end of the day after a lot of people have voted, but it’s mostly empty, there’s still a chance that virus particles could be hanging around in the air. So keep that mask on, no matter what.

Bring your own pen or stylus if you can to fill in ballots or use touchscreens—it’s a simple solution that could potentially cut down your risk. “It probably wouldn’t make a huge difference, but given that millions of people are voting, we’d still like to reduce risk by such an easy mechanism,” Gerardin says.

And, try not to idly chitchat with other people in close quarters. Gerardin points out that the mass protests around the country this summer weren’t super-spreader events and didn’t lead to any outbreaks, but chatting without a mask can increase your risk. “We know that talking is one of the activities that tends to spew the virus out of you if you’re infected,” she says, so if you have to talk to strangers, do it outside and with a mask on.

Ultimately, Gerardin says, the safest way to vote overall is to mail in your ballot if you can—and she already has. There’s been no substantiated evidence that mail-in voting leads to fraud, and some municipalities (like Chicago, for example) provide a tracking number that updates you every step of the process—even when your vote is officially counted. This method is especially helpful for at-risk populations like the elderly. 

Sure, walking to the polling place or getting a ride there could expose you to an infectious person. But “no one’s going to be voting for you if you’re at risk,” Gerardin says—so consider skipping the hassle altogether and voting by mail if your state allows it.