Voting safely: How to protect yourself from Covid-19 while casting your ballot

Are you ready to make your mark on history? When you exercise your right to vote on November 3, you will have done something that no American has done for more than 50 years: voted during a deadly pandemic.

Posted: Sep 22, 2020 2:33 PM

(CNN) -- Are you ready to make your mark on history? When you exercise your right to vote on November 3, you will have done something that no American has done for more than 50 years: voted during a deadly pandemic.

The "Hong Kong flu" hit the United States in September 1968, and while it ultimately killed more than 100,000 Americans over the next two years, the impact on the 1968 election was minimal. Cases began to climb the week after the election, peaking during December, with another wave the following year -- mitigated by a vaccine that was already in place.

That's not today's reality. There is no vaccine available. Over 200,000 people in the United States will have died and some 7 million people will have been diagnosed with Covid-19 before the end of September, according to the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

While some states have flattened their curve, cases of Covid-19 are still rising in many parts of the nation.

Considering these facts, is it safe to vote in person on election day 2020? Or should you choose early voting or a mail-in ballot?

Experts say the answer depends on a variety of factors unique to you -- your personal risk, the degree of Covid-19 transmission in your local area and your willingness to plan and execute personal safety precautions while casting your vote.

"Make a voting plan. Make that voting plan early and have a backup plan for your plan," advised Hannah Klain, an Equal Justice Works fellow in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City.

"Having a plan so that you don't end up having to choose between your health and your fundamental right to vote is the most critical thing that that voters could do right now," Klain said.

1. Check the data
It's critical to know if the virus is spreading in your local area when you're about to go to the polls, said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University in Atlanta.

"If you're in an area that has really gotten control of Covid-19, and it's having very little spread in the community, that's safer than areas that are having ongoing outbreaks in terms of being around people," Sexton said.

Your county's virus status can be found in real time on several national trackers, such as the one maintained by Johns Hopkins or the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab.

Most state and local governments are also providing citizens with regular snapshots so you can also call or check online as well.

Tip: To avoid being the victim of mis- or disinformation, rely on official tallies by trusted officials and institutions for these numbers on rate of viral spread before you make your decision.

2. Know your risk
Remember: Anyone can be infected by the novel coronavirus -- no matter your age or how healthy you are, although people with certain underlying conditions are at higher risk for serious complications such as being put onto a ventilator in the ICU.

It's true that younger people are more likely to have mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all -- but a growing number of healthy young people are getting very sick. Some even die. Others may become members of the Covid-19 "long-haulers" club, unable to shake the aftermath of the virus for months.

If you're not at high risk for the virus and community transmission is low, consider volunteering to be a poll worker, Sexton suggested.

"The more people they have staffing the location, the faster and more orderly the process," she said. "Then they may be able to move people through so that people aren't standing in line for a long period of time."

3. Mail it in
If you live in an area where virus transmission has been high -- or you are in a high-risk group -- that may be a good reason to consider obtaining an absentee ballot and voting by mail, experts say.

It's a breeze to get an application for your voting district at Vote.org -- or the U.S. Vote Foundation -- just fill in a short form and you'll be sent an email with the application. All you have to do is print it, sign it and send it to the address provided.

When should your absentee ballot arrive to be counted? Vote.org also has a list of deadlines by state -- as does U.S. Vote Foundation -- but it's best to double-check in case your state has implemented changes due to Covid-19. Both organizations also have a list of resources by state you can use to verify your state's rules.

4. Dropping off your mail-in ballot
Some voters plan to deliver their mail-in ballot in person. If that's nothing more than opening a mail slot and inserting your ballot, you'll be fine as long as you immediately use hand sanitizer.

If you have to wait outside -- be sure to wear a mask and practice at least 6 feet social distancing recommendations. If you have to enter a building, read on for specific advice.

5. Voting in person
Voting in person is a cherished right for many Americans -- and for people concerned that their ballot might be lost in the mail, this may be their preferred option.

Standing in long lines at the polling center with people who may or may not be wearing masks, often inside buildings without good ventilation, certainly raises your risk of catching Covid-19.

But there are things you can do to reduce risk if you vote in person.

Protect your community -- starting now: The election is fast approaching, and experts say taking action now to make the community safer before heading to the polls is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

"I put voting in the same category as getting kids back to school -- these are things that should be really important to us," Sexton said. "So this is a time to continue to limit large gatherings, avoid in-person dining and not be at bars and parties, because the level of virus in the community is going to determine how safe it is to vote in person. So everything we can do to make the community safer ahead of time will make voting safer."

Check your polling station: What's the level of protection that will be in place at your assigned polling station? You should know in advance, for example:

  • If you'll be spending the majority of your wait standing outside
  • If masks are required of both voters and poll workers
  • If 6-feet spacing markers will be visible on floors to control social distancing
  • If there is a separate entrance and exit from the voting area
  • If there will be a Plexiglas barrier between the voter and the poll worker
  • If poll workers will be wearing face shields, surgical face masks and gloves
  • If there will be adequate space between voting privacy booths
  • If poll workers will sanitize frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, voting booths and bathrooms regularly

"Outdoors is just dramatically safer than indoors because of the airflow," said infectious disease specialist Sexton, adding that any time spent indoors should be minimized.

You also want to vote at a location that has a separate point of entry and exit to minimize crowds forming in the space.

"My polling place historically ends up with a two way line sneaking up and down a large enclosed hallway, which is not something that you would want to do right now," Sexton said.

"Talk to your local government about your local polling place and what they've thought through about safety," Sexton said. "Some of these things can be rectified by limiting the number of people who come indoors at any one point in time, and really spacing out stations and spacing out the line, and then making sure that everybody is masked."

The safest locations will be school gymnasiums, community recreation centers, convention centers and large parking lots, according to the Brennan Center and the Infectious Diseases Society of America guidelines.

Tip: Do not vote in person if your polling station is located at a high-risk facility, such as a senior care facility.
Some districts plan to offer curbside voting, especially for those who are not feeling well or who are at extremely high risk, according to Klain.

"If election workers are doing curbside voting, we would want them to have additional PPE like gloves, a face shield and a face mask," Klain said.

Vote early: If your district allows, voting early -- which begins as early as September in some states -- is an excellent way to cut down on your exposure to the virus as crowds will be reduced. You can find out if your state allows early voting on Vote.org or check with your state.

Even if you can't vote on a different day than November 3, stay in touch with local friends on Facebook or a neighborhood site like Nextdoor. People will often post updates about crowds at different times of the day, which can be used to plan your trip.

Carefully choose your mask (and be sure to wear it over your nose and mouth): Wearing a mask over the mouth but leaving the nose exposed defeats the purpose of a mask, studies have shown. Since the vast majority of us are not mouth breathers, the virus is mostly likely to enter as you take a breath through your nose.

So cover both nose and mouth when wearing a mask, experts say.

While any mask is better than nothing, studies have shown that cotton masks with two or three layers of fabric are more protective than single-ply masks or bandanas. In fact, a recent study found bandanas and gaiter masks to be least effective in protection.

"You don't want a mask that when you hold it up you can see your hand on the other side of it," Sexton said. "If you use a filter in your mask, be sure to change it regularly because it can clog. You can tell if it gives you a sensation that's a little harder to breathe."

Be especially wary of the look-alike N95 type masks being sold at major retail distributors, Sexton said.

"Some of those community use N95-masks have exhalation valve in them," she said. "They do make them more comfortable to wear, but you're not protecting the people around you -- it's putting your airflow right out in the environment.

"It may actually make things worse because it concentrates your breath into that valve, allowing it to come through with some force and the droplets may travel a little farther. So we strongly recommend that people don't wear a mask that has an exhalation valve."

Vote alone: Unless you have a disability that requires assistance, vote alone, experts say. This is not the year to bring your children or other non-voting family members to the voting location.

"I remember going with my parents to vote, but this year that's probably not the best idea. We want to really minimize the number of unnecessary people at the polling place," Klain said.

Come prepared: Along with that highly protective mask, you should definitely bring tissues and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol or disinfecting wipes, the CDC says.

"It may be helpful to bring your own pen, too, because sometimes you have to sign the voter card or mark a paper ballot," Sexton said.

If you and others are following the 6-foot rule, the most likely interpersonal contact during voting is between the voter and the polling workers checking you in.

"Ideally there'd be a Plexiglas barrier, and in states where voters have to provide ID, they'd be able to just show their ID through the Plexiglas barrier," Klain said. "Minimizing the number of shared items that voters touch and election workers touch is really critical."

If your voting station has touch-screen voting, you should bring along a cotton swab, finger cover or glove to cast your vote instead of using your finger. Be sure to immediately discard those aids (peel the glove off from your wrist inside out to avoid cross-contamination).

"There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around this election, and that is a wonderful thing," Klain said "But no one should feel caught unawares by the election that's coming, and the best way is to make a plan.

"If you're going to vote by mail, request your mail ballot as early as possible, return it as early as possible. If you're going to vote in person, consider voting early, when the lines will probably be shorter so not everyone is going on the same day," Kalin added.

And if you're going to vote in person on Election Day, wear personal protection and take any steps you can to keep not only yourself safe, but keep the election workers who are sacrificing their time and bodies for the sake of the election safe as well."

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