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Is it safe to vote in person during the pandemic?

Is it safe to vote in person coronavirus
Photo via Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With the 2020 presidential election coming up in November, the coronavirus pandemic is already causing murky uncertainties from whether there will be a second wave (likely) to the availability of an effective, widespread vaccination (less likely). But because federal elections cannot be postponed without congressional intervention—not to mention, such an action would be unprecedented in the United States democracy—many are wondering this: Is it safe to vote during the pandemic?

Due to the pandemic, a number of states already had to push back primary elections or had to direct voters to vote by mail or with absentee ballots.

On July 30, President Trump suggested on Twitter that the U.S. should think about delaying the presidential election, though, under the constitution, he has absolutely no authority to do so. Even some Republicans pushed back on that notion after Trump tweeted out that suggestion.

As John Oliver pointed out in a May episode of Last Week Tonight, “holding an in-person election during a pandemic is an absolute nightmare.” Many polling places are held in settings that facilitate the spread of germs, such as schools or churches, and many volunteer poll workers tend to be older, retired Americans who are already at high risk for contracting the virus.

While a typical voter might encounter 20 other people when they go to the polls, a typical poll worker might encounter 700 voters, Oliver added.

Since many poll workers are retired and are a part of older generations, there could be an issue of many of them opting out of working in public. But the Civic Alliance announced on Aug. 31 that its members “are taking concrete steps to encourage their employees or consumers to serve as poll workers. Many companies are also offering PPE and safe, accessible spaces for voting to local election officials.” Those companies that are part of the Civic Alliance include Starbucks, Target, Microsoft, and Twitter.

On Sept. 1, Old Navy said it would pay its employees for eight hours if they volunteer as poll workers. “Every voice in this country matters and deserves to be heard at the polls, and if we at Old Navy can be even a small part of making that process more accessible to the communities we call home, we are on board,” said Nancy Green, the president of Old Navy, said in a statement. Soon after, Axios reported that Facebook employees also would be paid to staff polling locations.

Long lines can make it difficult to properly socially distance, and Wisconsin’s much-maligned primary election on April 7 was a prime example of how things can go very wrong. More than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during Wisconsin’s primary on April 7 later tested positive for COVID-19. Though the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it couldn’t verify that these positive cases had been a direct result from participating in the primary, all 52 patients had been tested before April 21, which was exactly two weeks after the primary.

Dr. Ruth Berggren, director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at UT Health San Antonio, told KSAT 12 News ahead of Texas’ rescheduled July 14 primary elections that she doesn’t believe voting in-person would be wise, given the circumstances. A few weeks after the Texas primary, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added an extra six days of early voting for the presidential election, seemingly so it’ll thin potential crowds of people out even more while still giving them the ability to vote in-person.

“I vote regularly and I stand in line with everybody else. And I think that sometimes the lines are long,” Berggren said. “It can be hot outside and it’s going to be very hard to keep people six feet apart.”

“And then you have the fact that the voting booths themselves are high-touch areas. How are you gonna handle that? And the voters themselves are not necessarily six feet apart when they’re in the booths,” she continued. “There’s a short divider between you and the next person over, but you’re certainly not six feet apart.”

“So I think without a major overhaul of the setup it’s going to be hard to [vote in person] safely, and I really think that mail-in voting would be a very appropriate adaptation to the situation. It makes a lot of sense to me,” Berggren added.

But in mid-August, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s most recognizable infectious diseases expert, said that American can vote safely in person if they follow the proper protocols and aren’t physically compromised. He compared it to a trip to the grocery store. And for what it’s worth, The Atlantic has the same opinion as Fauci.

“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason that I can see why that not be the case,” Fauci said. “…  If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to [vote].”

Is it safe to vote by mail instead?

Despite what conservative pundits and certain elected officials have been saying, President Donald Trump included, mail-in or absentee voting has been around since the Civil War—and it’s by no means unusual nor “corrupt.” It’s completely safe to vote if done by mail. It’s also a secure way for people to cast their ballots, and one in four Americans have done so during the last two federal elections.

The reason mail-in voting is just now becoming a perceived hot-button issue is due to the fact that many states that held their primary elections after the pandemic broke have been pushing constituents to vote by mail. That hasn’t stopped President Trump from trying to vilify the process, with the exception of Florida, though.

As the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) states, claims that increased voting by mail will result in rampant fraud are “simply false,” and there are plenty of studies to prove that there is zero evidence of significant, widespread voter fraud associated with vote-by-mail.

In fact, the nonprofit advocacy organization cites a recent analysis of three vote-by-mail states by the Washington Post and Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which found that officials identified just 372 possible instances of improper voting out of 14.6 million mail-in votes combined from the 2016 and 2018 general elections. That’s just 0.0025% of, again, possible cases of voter fraud.

The reason why cases of voter fraud are so low is due to the fact that the U.S. has established strong safeguards to prevent mail-in voter fraud. As follows are just a few simple yet effective security measures that have been put in place to make election fraud “exceedingly difficult” to pull off.

  • Signature verification: Mail-in ballots require a signature on the envelope, which is examined by expert-trained election officials to determine whether it matches the voters’ signature on file.
  • Bar code ballot tracking: Each voter has their own unique bar code, which is scanned after having been submitted, and then tracked in the system to ensure voters can’t cast another ballot for that election.
  • Twenty-four-hour surveillance of ballot drop boxes: By mandating that no one can be alone with ballots at any given time, a clear chain of custody is established for all ballots.

Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii are all proof that these security measures work, as states that all have had a long history of all-mail elections without any significant voter fraud. Oregon, in particular, began running its elections by mail in 1993 and to date, has seen just 82 felony convictions under its election statutes between 1990 and 2019.

But by mid-August, the stories coming out of the USPS were concerning for those worried about a fair presidential election, particularly since Trump has continued to bash the Service and has said that voting by mail could be “one of the greatest frauds in history.” The president also said this on Aug. 13 regarding the Democrats in Congress who want to give new money to the Postal Service, in part for election security: “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”

“If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” he said. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

On Aug. 22, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would send the Post Office $25 billion and stop any operational changes until after the presidential election. But don’t expect the Senate to vote on it anytime soon. That lack of action certainly could affect whether a person decides whether it’s safe to vote in person.

Ultimately, when you decide whether to vote in person vs. mail-in voting, it’s not just your safety you must consider—but the safety of volunteers and older or special needs voters. And with polling places likely to be condensed, those who do vote in-person can expect long lines and delays in either case.

Is it safe:

Sources: Public Interest Research Group, KSAT 12, Washington Post, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver


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