Voting is one of America’s most cherished rights, and as the nation approaches a crucial and unprecedented election on Nov. 3, many people are wondering how they can cast their vote safely during a pandemic.
To get some answers, Yahoo News spoke to Yahoo medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel and to Raúl Macías of the Brennan Center for Justice voting rights and elections team.
The first step, they said, is to arm yourself with information and to come up with a voting plan.
Check the data
Over 6 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 this year. With no vaccine available yet, most group activities such as voting in person will continue to pose some level of health risk. That risk can be higher in areas experiencing outbreaks, so you may want to check the level of spread in your community before making your decision. A good resource is Johns Hopkins University’s national tracker, which will show you what your county’s COVID-19 status is.
Voting by mail
This year, election and public health experts highly recommend voting by mail.
Absentee voting is a way to vote by mail and usually involves a ballot that is requested by voters who are unable to attend their official polling place. People with disabilities, those facing emergency situations or those who are abroad can benefit from absentee voting. In two-thirds of the states, voters may vote absentee without having to offer an excuse; the other one-third require an excuse.
Because of COVID-19, many states have temporarily relaxed their rules and are allowing voters to cite fear of getting sick from the virus as a valid excuse.
Mail-in voting refers to a ballot that is automatically mailed to every eligible voter with no request or application necessary, even if polling places may also be available for them to vote in person. Five states — Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii — already conduct their elections using a mail-in voting system.
Regardless of the vote-by-mail method your state uses, it’s important to note that all these ballots are verified before they are counted.
Voting by mail is especially recommended for people who are at higher risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
“States have different laws regarding who is eligible to vote by mail. So voters need to check their county elections office website to see whether or not they are eligible to vote by mail,” said Macías.
This year a handful of states, such as California and Illinois, will be sending every eligible voter a ballot in the mail without requiring them to request one. Other states, such as Georgia, will be sending an absentee ballot application to all active voters. If your state is not automatically mailing you one, you can get an absentee ballot application by visiting Vote.org.
If voting by mail is your preferred method, the United States Postal Service advises everyone to plan ahead and “give yourself and your election officials ample time to complete the process.”
Rules on how and when to return an absentee ballot also vary by state, so you will need to contact your election board, or go to its website, to confirm that information. Vote.org also offers a list of resources and deadlines by state, where you can verify your state’s rules on absentee and voting in general.
But Macías told Yahoo News that a nationwide mail-only election is unrealistic. “Some people who vote in person need services that they can only get at a polling place,” he said.
Some of these include voters with disabilities, those needing language assistance and those who live in rural communities or Native American reservations who do not have access to reliable mail delivery.
There are also voters who are hesitant to cast their ballots by mail. “There’s been a concerted effort to undermine trust in the postal service … and there are a lot of people in this country who have experienced efforts to disenfranchise them. For those voters, going to vote in person and seeing that ballot put into that ballot box is really important,” Macías added.
Safe in-person voting
If you do vote in person, Patel said that “the risk of getting to the polls and having an exposure to the coronavirus is almost the same as the risk of you getting the coronavirus by going to the grocery store.”
She recommended that everyone prepare a kit with essential items before heading to the polls. “You want a mask that covers your nose and mouth,” she said. A good test to check whether your mask is protecting you is to try to blow out a birthday candle while wearing it. If you can, it is not safe enough.
“You also want to make sure you have a little hand sanitizer or some antiseptic wipes, so that you can wipe surfaces and your hands frequently.” she added.
Patel also suggested bringing a pen to mark your ballot, and an extra mask, in case one breaks or gets dirty. But when it comes to gloves, she said they may not be as effective in keeping you safe as many people think.
“Gloves sometimes make people feel safe, but if you end up putting gloves on, and then touching things and then touching your face, it actually is not safe.”
Check your polling station
Another thing voters should check in advance is the location of their polling station, which may have changed. Election and health officials have been advised to relocate to spaces that are well ventilated and can accommodate social distancing measures.
According to the Brennan Center and the Infectious Diseases Society of America guidelines, some of the safest places to hold in-person voting are school gymnasiums, community recreation centers, convention centers and large parking lots.
Many polling places that were located in or near high-risk communities such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be closed, so make sure you know where you need to go to cast your ballot.
You’ll also want to know what health and safety measures your polling place is using.
Patel and Macías, as well as many other experts, recommend voting early when possible, as there are likely to be fewer crowds. This is a great option if you want to minimize your exposure to the virus.
In some states, early voting will begin as early as September. Vote.org has that information by state available here.
What to expect at your polling place this year
Election and health officials across the country are working together so that polling places are safe. These are some of the things you may see this year:
Poll workers may wear personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields.
There will be clear signs and visible 6-foot markers on the floor to encourage social distancing.
The polling place may require voters to enter and exit through different doors.
Physical barriers such as plexiglass may be in place to minimize potential contact between voters and poll workers.
Hand sanitizing and mobile handwashing stations may be available, as well as masks if needed.
In places where voters must show ID, there may be a contactless way to do so, such as having the voter hold the card as the poll worker checks it.
Polling booths will be spaced farther apart than in previous years.
Curbside voting options, as well as drop-off boxes for your mail-in ballot, may be available in some areas.
Poll workers will be regularly sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, voting booths and bathrooms.
In addition, Macías said, everyone should expect to see an influx of new and younger poll workers. Older people account for large shares of poll workers in U.S. general elections. This is a population that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, so states have been mobilizing to recruit and train new poll workers.
That, Macías said, will present some challenges, because many will be doing this for the first time. “Please be patient. Poll workers are doing the best they can, and they’re really heroes for our democracy this year,” he added.
Patel also believes that patience will be key at the polls this year. Longer waiting times will be inevitable in some places due to the health measures that will be implemented to keep everyone safe.
“Bring a book, or make sure you can bring something where you can listen to music, and try to remain as patient as possible. … We’re all struggling through this, and there are certainly going to be hiccups along the way,” she said.
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