Due to concerns about COVID-19, millions upon millions of Americans are expected to vote by mail in this year’s general election. We encourage this: voting by mail is a safe, convenient alternative to in-person voting. But some voters will find voting by mail doesn’t work for them or isn’t available, so it’s imperative that voters and election officials take evidence-based measures to best minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission at the polls.
Since healthy and safe elections are a priority for all Americans, the Brennan Center and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) have partnered to release Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting, a set of clear, non-partisan, evidence-based recommendations drawn from IDSA’s expertise in infectious diseases and public health and the Brennan Center’s in election administration. It provides a blueprint for election administrators so they can develop best practices for making polling locations as safe as possible during the pandemic.
First, election administrators must ensure there are enough polling locations to meet voter demand. During the 2020 primary elections, some counties faced widespread polling place closures due to COVID-19-related staffing shortages. For instance, in April on Election Day, 180 polling places were reduced to only five open locations in Milwaukee. A recent report by the Brennan Center found that voters with fewer polling places per voter reported longer wait times to cast their ballots. Previously, long wait times were disruptive and disenfranchising. This year they could also be deadly, as longer wait times can also mean greater risk of exposure to the virus.
Choice of polling location matters. Voting should occur in large, well-ventilated areas that can accommodate physical distancing measures. Counties should aim to use school gymnasiums, community recreation centers, convention centers, or large arenas as voting sites. If weather permits, they may want to consider allowing voting in large parking lots. For optimal infection control, voting locations should have one-way flow, with separate points of entry and exit for voters. This will also minimize crowd formation.
Of course, if a voting location is changed, voters should immediately be given individualized notice of the change, with a second notice to be given within weeks of the November election. If polling locations are moved out of senior care facilities or other nursing facilities — and they should be — plans should be implemented ahead of time to ensure residents of those facilities are able to cast a ballot.
Inside polling locations, all voters should take proactive steps to remain safe and healthy. This means maintaining appropriate physical distance of at least six feet between individuals, wearing a mask that covers nose and mouth, and practicing good hand hygiene. Polling places must be appropriately cleaned to prevent transmission of coronavirus, with hand sanitizer provided to voters before and after voting, with voting booth surfaces and machines sanitized after each use. High-touch surfaces, such as poll worker stations, door handles, and bathrooms, should be cleaned with an FDA-approved disinfectant approximately every four hours.
Officials should also avoid recirculation of contaminated air and facilitate increased air flow in these locations. They can do this by maximizing heating, ventilation and air conditioning capacity and using air filtration systems, but officials should also plan to reconfigure locations to ensure there is plenty of space between voting booths.
It is also critical that counties work closely with local health departments to develop systems to support the public during the 2020 general election. This could include free COVID-19 testing for poll workers before and after Election Day, monitoring poll workers to make sure they do not develop signs or symptoms of COVID-19, testing opportunities for individuals who voted in person to prevent community spread of coronavirus. Counties should ensure that polling sites have appropriate personal protective equipment.
This fall, we are going to face many tough choices, but no American should have to choose between their fundamental right to vote and their health. Voting by mail should be available to all Americans who want to use it. In addition, adequate resources and thoughtful, advanced planning on the part of election administrators are essential to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission during in-person voting. There is much work to be done to make sure voting locations across the country are safe for the November election. Now is the time to implement policies and procedures to make sure all voters can safely exercise their right to vote, however they chose to do so.