Voting in person in November? Here's how to do it safely

It's expected that many people will mail in their 2020 ballots, but it's possible to vote in-person and stay safe if basic guidelines are followed.
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/ Source: TODAY

While voting by mail is the safest way to cast your vote during the coronavirus pandemic, multiple health experts said that it's possible to vote safely in person as long as you follow basic hygiene guidelines.

Masks should be worn — especially while indoors and while in line — and voters should take care to wash their hands after signing ballots or operating voting machines. Be careful not to touch your face before washing your hands, and try to maintain as much distance as possible while voting.

"For those who do decide to vote in person, it's a lot of the same principles that we use to go anywhere in the community," said Caitlin Rivers, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Definitely wear a mask, keep your distance from other people, wash your hands, and where possible, where it makes sense, try and be outside instead of inside."

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has released a short guide of what people should keep in mind while voting in person. In addition to masking and distancing, try to have any documentation you might need easily available so you don't have to spend time searching for it, follow any markings for entering or exiting a booth or room, and avoid bringing unnecessary people to the poll, such as children who aren't voting and can be left at home with another adult.

Barun Mathema, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said that people should also keep an eye on community spread and local COVID-19 statistics. If your area is seeing an outbreak, avoid voting in person if possible.

"What I would want to know is 'Where am I voting, what is that community data?'" said Mathema. "Is the community having an active surge of cases, are there ongoing outbreaks that have been documented? I think that would be an important thing to know."

One potential risk comes from waiting in long lines, especially if those lines are inside. Mathema said that voting centers should do what they can to increase ventilation, like open windows, but it's better to move the entire line outside if at all possible.

"In places where they could do this, polling outdoors or having much more well ventilated areas are certainly far safer," said Mathema, who said that polling centers should also take care of poll workers by placing a barrier between workers and voters. "Be wary of places where the line snakes along the hallway ... Those are places that are less ideal."

"Anytime you have a crowd that's sort of like sardined into a building, even lined up, even in a hallway where people are distanced, there may not be that much airflow," Mathema continued. "Those are the types of things I would be looking out for."

The actual motion of going in and casting a vote should be fairly safe, especially if masks are worn and the amount of people allowed into the room at once is limited to allow for distancing. If it makes you feel more comfortable, bring a sanitizer wipe to wipe down the machine before using it. However, washing hands immediately after voting will have the same effect.

"It's probably a good idea to wipe down surfaces, but I think what would be really important is after voting or casting your ballot, properly sanitize your hands," Mathema said. "If you can't access a bathroom with good old soap and water for the appropriate amount of time, then use hand sanitizer."

According to guidelines from the Brennan Center, poll workers should sanitize surfaces within the voting location at least every four hours. Door handles, voting machines, and other frequently touched surfaces should be wiped down.

If voters, employees and polling centers all follow appropriate measures, and community spread is low, voting can be "made safe," said Mathema.

No matter what, do not go into a polling center if you are showing symptoms of COVID-19. Instead, look at local rules and regulations to determine if you can mail in your ballot on Election Day or drop it off at a ballot box.

"When it comes to things like voting, you know it's not going to be a chance encounter, you know you'll be in proximity to other individuals, and if you or anybody else you live with is (having symptoms), it would not be safe to go to a polling center," said Mathema.

"Voting should not be a risky business," he said. "But, nevertheless, we are still in a pandemic so there is certainly far more risk than there would have been last year."