This election year is marked by unprecedented challenges. Beyond intense political discourse and concerns over election integrity is the ever-looming presence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It can’t be avoided.
In the same way that the COVID-19 outbreak upended all aspects of our daily lives — from working in an office to going to school — how we vote has changed as well.
This has left voters with many questions about how best to cast their ballot on November 3, including how they can vote safely if they choose to do it in person.
First, assess the risks
Dr. Anne Monroe, MSPH, an associate research professor of epidemiology at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, said that deciding to vote in person this fall — as with everything — bears consideration and weighing how much risk you’re assuming.
It boils down to your comfort level with assessing whether your local jurisdiction has put in place the needed precautions.
It also matters whether you personally feel you have been safe and haven’t been exposed to COVID-19 prior to voting, and what your comfort level is with entering a public space, Monroe told Healthline.
“Very few activities carry zero risk other than sitting at your home alone,” she said. “For everybody, it involves examining what their own health status is, what the status is of their community, what the transmission rate is, whether they have vulnerable individuals in their household, whether or not their children are back in school, or they have been going back out to their offices.”
“It bears a lot of questions to ask yourself,” Monroe added. “How do you stay healthy and how do you do everything you can to make sure your vote is counted? It’s a lot to balance and a lot to process.”
Assessing your personal risk ahead of time can help you feel more at ease with the decision you make.
Become familiar with your official polling place guidelines
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its guidelines for election polling locations during COVID-19.
As with the recommendations for other public gathering spaces like restaurants and gyms, polling places are expected to regularly disinfect surfaces. They’re also expected to provide signs marking where voters should stand and walk to avoid crowding and maintain proper distancing.
Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases who leads the Pediatric Infection Control and is the co-chief infection prevention officer for UCLA Health, pointed out that the 6-feet physical distancing guidelines for polling places will result in delays and long lines which might dissuade some citizens from voting.
However, de St. Maurice said that, overall, she does believe that waiting in line to vote in person should be considered relatively safe as long as you maintain your distance, wear a mask, and limit your interactions with others.
She also said that the nature of voting itself — something that generally takes no more than 5 minutes once you get in the booth and doesn’t involve speaking with others — is a relatively safe activity.
“Considering all the risks you take on a day-to-day basis, voting at your polling place is going to be low risk,” she said.
For those who have physical disabilities, accessibility may present additional challenges on Election Day.
While polling sites are supposed to be accessible to all voters, including those who have disabilities, the quality of accessibility varies widely from site to site.
Experts say becoming familiar with your polling place ahead of time can help you plan for additional barriers you may encounter on Election Day.
Take extra precautions for households with those at higher risk from COVID-19
Monroe said that individuals who are considered high-risk for more serious COVID-19 symptoms have to take additional considerations into account when voting, just as they do when they go grocery shopping or visit a department store.
“It might be preferable to vote early if their jurisdiction has early voting to be able to vote when crowds are thinner and more socially distanced,” she said.
De St. Maurice added that these voters should pay extra attention to recommendations for physical distancing and make sure to practice proper hygiene and handwashing.
If you are high risk and think visiting a polling station would be particularly dangerous for your health, she said you should look into options for mail-in voting.
Additionally, if you have a condition that requires medication, be sure to always bring it with you and have on hand in case you end up waiting in long polling lines for most of the day.
In short, make an Election Day plan for yourself.
As always, consult your doctor about your concerns. It might be smart to devise your safe-voting plan with your physician ahead of election season to put you at ease and ensure you’re doing what you need to stay healthy.
De St. Maurice said this also goes for people who might live with loved ones or housemates who are at higher risk too.
If you’re taking proper precautions when going to the grocery store, then you should do the same when going to the polling place, she added.
Should you get tested after casting your vote?
As with most things related to the pandemic, you need to assess on a case-by-case basis whether you should get tested after voting in person, especially if you or a loved one you live with have higher risk.
However, Monroe said she doesn’t believe it’s necessary in most cases.
“I think we all are getting used to going to shopping venues, a grocery store, a department store like Wal-Mart or Target. We’re getting used to precautions we need to take when we go into larger venues. I don’t know if it is necessary to take that separate extra step of getting tested after voting,” she said.
Nevertheless, Monroe explained that you may want to consider heading to a testing site if:
- your jurisdiction has a high transmission rate
- it’s been reported there was an outbreak that originated at your polling place
- you’re particularly worried about interacting with friends and loved ones who are immunocompromised or at high risk
“I do not want to suggest that everyone who votes should get tested, but if anyone might have been exposed, then they should go get tested. It’s always important to stop chains of transmission early,” Monroe said.
Be mindful of your mental and emotional health, too
Another major issue with election season is anxiety.
It’s no secret that this particular political era is fraught with anxiety-inducing tension.
Fears over contracting and transmitting the virus while heading to a crowded polling place are very valid and real. How do you cope with the anxiety all of that might produce?
This might be especially exacerbated for people who, after months of intensely adhering to shelter-in-place guidelines, are now facing the prospect of walking into a crowded voting center.
“I think that if somebody is feeling anxious about their voting venue and they arrive and see large groups of people crowded inside, I think that for many people that could potentially be a deterrent, and they might not want to put themselves in that situation — especially if they had months and months of being isolated from others,” Monroe said.
She said for these people in particular, they should look into early voting so they can avoid a busy general Election Day on November 3.
De St. Maurice said that many cities, counties, and states right now have mental health counseling hotlines that people can call if they’re dealing with COVID-19-related anxiety.
You might also consider speaking with a therapist or some other mental health counselor as the election nears and your anxiety increases.
Be vigilant about your health and safety as you make your voice heard
Despite efforts to minimize risks, Monroe urges voters to keep in mind that public health guidelines aren’t always articulated clearly, or followed by everyone. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant about your health and safety as you exercise your right to vote this year.
“I think everyone is in the same balancing act of weighing potential health risks with ensuring their voice is being heard in the process,” Monroe said.
Having an Election Day plan in place and learning as much as you can about your polling place ahead of time will help ease anxieties and keep you safe while you cast your ballot.
Brian Mastroianni is a New York–based science and health journalist. Brian’s work has been published by The Atlantic, The Paris Review, CBS News, The TODAY Show, and Engadget, among others. When not following the news, Brian is an actor who’s studied at The Barrow Group in NYC. He sometimes blogs about fashionable dogs. Yes. Really. Brian graduated from Brown University and has a Master of Arts from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Check out his website or follow him on Twitter.
Fact checked by Dana K. Cassell.