If you weren’t already itching to cast your ballot in the 2020 election, the first presidential debate last night — which I can only describe as “chaotic evil” — may have got you seriously thinking about what voting will look like for you. The first step, of course, is registering in your state. But once that box is checked, 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 206,000 people in the U.S. and infected more than 7.2 million. We know it's mainly 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 says. “It also has an unexpected benefit this year: You’re not going to get sick voting by mail.” In fact, some states are conducting their elections this year entirely by mail, including Washington, where Dr. Pottinger lives. It's a good option for folks who are in groups that are at a higher risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19 and for those in areas where cases have spiked.
It takes two minutes on Vote.org to request an absentee ballot, and the website has a list of state deadlines to help you make sure your ballot gets in on time.
But not everyone is comfortable with this option. Some worry that mail-in ballots will 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
If you're wary of mailing in your ballot, you can drop it off in person, and it’s almost as safe as voting by mail. 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 going to a polling place. 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 more risky 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 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. 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.
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.
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.”