How To Vote Safely During COVID-19

Photo: Getty Images.
Today is the last day to cast your ballot in the 2020 election, after a hellishly long campaign and debate season that can only be described as “chaotic evil." Of course, many people have already voted by mail, dropped off their ballots, or voted early in person. But if today is your official voting day, you might have questions about the safety of the different approaches to voting in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the U.S. 
The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 231,000 people in the U.S. and infected more than 9.3 million, according to the New York Times. We know it's often passed via respiratory droplets that are expelled when infected people cough or talk, which can make us understandably anxious about being around others, especially indoors. But that fear shouldn't discourage you from exercising your right to cast a ballot.
“I think voting can be done totally safely and think people should do it,” says Paul Pottinger, MD, a professor specializing in infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “No one should be intimidated or frightened.” We asked him for advice on how to stay safe this year.

Vote by mail 

“It’s totally safe and very effective to vote by mail, and the vote is well tracked,” Dr. Pottinger told Refinery29 in September. “It also has an unexpected benefit this year: You’re not going to get sick voting by mail.” But there is a big but: Depending on your state, it might be too late now to mail in your ballot. Do some research and figure out how late your state will count post-marked ballots. If you live in a state like Minnesota Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, or Wisconsin, it's too late for this option, as your ballot must be received by Nov. 3 (today).
But people have had other concerns about voting by mail this year. Some worried early on that mail-in ballots would be thrown out, intercepted, or interfered with, in part because of President Donald Trump's statements casting doubt on the integrity of the process. Others believe that Trump may halt the “overtime count” (the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots after polls close on November 3), shifting the outcome in his favor.

Drop off your absentee ballot 

That's why, if you are able to, the best option now is to drop your absentee ballot off in an official dropbox, at your polling site, or at your local Board of Elections before the deadline in your area. You may have to go indoors, but you'll likely be inside for less time and have to interact with fewer people than you would if you were standing in line. To minimize your risk, wear a well-fitting face mask, try to keep at least six feet away from others, and squirt on some hand sanitizer if you have to touch a mail slot or door handle during the process, Dr. Pottinger says.

Vote In Person 

This is where things can seem scary, but Dr. Pottinger says it’s not much riskier than going to the grocery store, especially if you’re following the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by wearing a face mask (that covers both your mouth and nose), keeping your distance from others, and avoiding touching your face. Because your ballot is supposed to be a secret, the beauty of polling places is that they’ll likely be set up with booths spread far apart from each other already. Some will be putting plexiglass barriers between voters and poll workers.
If you have the flexibility, try to hit up your polling place during off hours, avoiding peak times when folks will be lining up to vote, such as right after work, suggests John O’Horo, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic.
Of course, it can help to come prepared. Consider bringing your own black pen with you, or some hand sanitizer to use if you opt for the shared pen, suggests Nate Favini, MD, the medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice. Also bring along a zip lock baggie with extra masks, just in case. 
If someone in line near you isn’t wearing a mask, but is creeping a little too close for comfort, you can either offer them one of your spare masks, ask them to take a step back, or flag the issue to one of the volunteers working at your polling place. 
Some experts are saying this year is a good one to go to the polls alone, sans children. Dr. Pottinger disagrees, with a caveat. “I think having kids watch their parents vote is important,” he says. But the child's face should be covered up, and they should be old enough to know to keep to themselves and not get close to others, even if the line is long. 
Another thing to think about: Increasingly, you'll see people handing out food and coffees to voters waiting in long lines. Actor Paul Rudd was spotted handing out blueberry-and-cream cookies to voters who were waiting in the rain. Favini says you should consider your risk factors before accepting (yes, even if the snacks are coming from your favorite celebrity). "This comes down to personal risk tolerance on an individual level," Dr. Favini says. If you're at high risk of getting a severe COVID-19 infection, it may not be worth taking a chance on the snack. Consider bringing your own instead. Another consideration: "Well-meaning people handing out cookies have beautiful intentions," says Jill Grimes, MD, board-certified family physician, and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness. "But when you take off your mask to eat a cookie or sip on your Starbucks, you’re defeating the purpose of wearing a mask." Consider accepting the sweet treat but saving it for after you vote.
Also of note, Dr. Favini says it's not a bad idea to get a coronavirus test a few days after you vote, especially if you live in an area with a high number of COVID-19 cases. This will help ensure you didn't pick up the virus while voting, so you don't spread it to others unknowingly.
Dr Pottinger’s general advice is to vote, vote, vote. But there’s one exception. If you’re feeling really sick on Election Day, it’s best to stay home. It could ultimately save a life. “This is why I really advise people to vote by mail, or to vote early if that’s an option in your community.” Folks in many states have already begun the process of voting early, and some states allow a family member, caretaker, or designated person to drop off your absentee ballot for you if you are ill or unable to go yourself.
In the end, no matter how you vote, it’s important to do so mindfully this year. “I have a very significant concern that people will do one of two things,” Dr. Pottinger says. “One is that people will ignore COVID-19, and the other is that they’ll be so scared of it that it paralyzes them. Neither is acceptable. People should vote. And they should just do it in a thoughtful, polite way that includes personal space and covering your face.” 

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series