Oct. 6, 2020 -- With the election less than a month away, 2020 is already a heated election year. Experts predict a massive turnout this November and during early voting periods in many states. But with COVID-19 still raging across the country, many would-be voters might wonder: What's the safest way to vote this year?
"From a COVID perspective, the safest way to vote would be voting by mail," says Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina. All states offer some form of voting by mail, and some will automatically mail all registered voters an absentee ballot.
But Kuppalli acknowledges there are a "lot of challenges" when it comes to voting by mail. Those challenges include slow mail service and a lack of equipment and staff needed to count all the ballots in states that haven't allowed voting by mail in the past.
Record numbers of people have already cast ballots, whether by mail or through in-person early voting. The United States Elections Project says more than 4 million people have already voted, compared to just 75,000 at the same time in 2016.
Kuppalli is also vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's (IDSA) Global Health Committee. She helped write guidelines for healthy in-person voting from the IDSA and the Brennan Center for Justice.
If you can't vote by mail, first look at other options, she says. Vote early when there are fewer crowds and lines, or fill out your ballot at home and drop it off at a ballot drop box or other designated location in your state. It's especially important for people who are at higher risk for a severe COVID-19 infection to take these precautions, including people over age 65 and those with health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, heart disease, and obesity.
Kuppalli recommends that you check with your local elections officials to see what early voting options there are where you live.
Safe In-Person Voting
"For many reasons, there will be people who won't be able to vote by mail or vote early," Kuppalli says. "There are a lot of things that can be done to mitigate the risk of voting in person on Election Day."
If you do need to vote on Election Day, try to go at an off-peak time, such as in the middle of the morning or afternoon. Some states offer curbside voting, where you can vote from inside your car if you're at high risk for COVID-19 because of a medical condition.
If you do have to wait in line, follow health experts' guidelines to prevent COVID-19. Wear a two-layer cloth mask over your nose and mouth, and keep at least 6 feet of distance between you and the people around you at all times. Some polling locations will put circles or other marks on the ground to let you know where to stand. If yours doesn't, 6 feet is about two arms’ lengths apart.
The IDSA and Brennan Center guidelines recommend that polling places regularly disinfect voting machines and other equipment and have hand sanitizer available in the voting area. Just in case your location doesn't do these things, Kuppalli recommends that you bring hand sanitizer and your own pen with you. "I carry hand sanitizer everywhere I go, because you never know if you're going to be able to find it," she says.
You might also want to wipe down the voting equipment before you use it, but first ask a poll worker. Disinfectants can damage some machines. Follow the instructions at your polling location.
After You Vote
Once you've voted, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. If you can't get to a sink, clean your hands with hand sanitizer and wash when you get home or back to work.
If you've stood in line for a long time or you're a poll worker, Kuppalli suggests that you take a shower when you get home. You can also get a COVID test afterward, just to have "peace of mind."
Ensuring a Safe Election
Ultimately, the safety of this year's election isn't just about what happens on Nov. 3, Kuppalli says. "It's also about what we do in the weeks leading up to the election."
Communities that have high rates of COVID transmission increase the risk that voters will get infected on Election Day. Hunkering down at home and wearing masks as we move into the fall months will help ensure that we have a safe election, she says.