How to prepare for in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic

Get ready and get out there.
a person holding an "I Voted" sticker on their finger
It's time. Parker Johnson/Unsplash

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Before this year, most Americans probably never considered how to vote during a pandemic.  But, well, here we are. About eight months into a situation many of us hoped would be over long ago, the election is well under way and millions of ballots still have to be cast—many of them in person.

Fortunately, we already know how to protect our communities and ourselves from COVID-19: by wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, and washing our hands. Those three viral countermeasures should form the foundation of your 2020 in-person voting plan.

Beyond the factors you control, your polling place should also be operating with the pandemic in mind. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for one, has created a list of recommendations for election officials and poll workers that includes a section on maintaining healthy voting environments.

“We have the tools at our disposal to make voting safe,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, the acting hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center. “We can control our own behavior and we know the conditions in which the virus will not spread, so people should feel empowered to go out there with the appropriate tools.”

The bare minimum

Planning to wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and practice proper hand hygiene makes you well-prepared for in-person voting. On their own, these actions can slow and prevent the spread of viruses, but you really make things hard for infectious pathogens when you combine them.

A growing body of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, has shown that masks work. For example, an analysis of societal norms and government policies in 196 countries showed that mask-wearing is associated with fewer COVID-19 deaths. But, you have to wear them properly.

Don’t touch your face, don’t mess around with the mask once it’s in position, and definitely don’t remove it inside your polling location, even if you’re far away from others. Masks should cover both your nose and mouth and fit snugly around your face to ensure as many viral droplets or aerosols get trapped in the fabric as possible.

“Wearing a mask over the nose and mouth is really important when you’re indoors,” says Dr. Ellen Foxman, an immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine. “The mask you wear is protecting other people, so hopefully you’ll see that others are complying.”

A face covering also provides a barrier against unexpected events, like coughs and sneezes, so don’t try to rationalize leaving your nose uncovered by promising yourself you’ll only breathe through your mouth. If you blast out a loud achoo!, air will be coming out of your nose whether you like it or not.

Staying more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) away from people probably lowers your chance of infection, and every additional meter may double the effectiveness of distancing, according to an analysis of 172 studies involving three coronaviruses—including the one that causes COVID-19. That’s why scientists and health officials have been recommending 6 feet as a social distancing measure. Consider this a minimum, though.

When you’re done voting, wash or sanitize your hands. Proper hand-washing technique can defeat COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, so lather up, scrub thoroughly for 20 seconds, and rinse.

Your polling place may have hand sanitizer bottles for public use, or you could bring your own to disinfect your hands before you touch anything (to protect those voting after you) and after (to protect yourself), says Jeanette Kowalik, former Milwaukee health commissioner and current director of policy development at nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. Just make sure it’s at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.

Going further

Once you’ve got the basics under control, you can make other considerations that will do even more to protect your community’s health and your own.

Different types of face coverings offer varying levels of protection. In general, the more layers one has, the more fibers particles have to dodge to get through. The CDC recommends masks with at least two layers. Some have disposable filter inserts. You could also consider disposable surgical masks, but the CDC does not recommend these for the general public. They were in short supply earlier this year and are necessary for health care workers. Looser coverings, such as bandanas or neck gaiters, don’t fit as snugly as masks, so they’re generally less effective, but better than nothing.

If you’re in a situation where you can’t adequately keep your distance from others, you could add eye protection to your outfit. It’s less likely that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will enter your body through your eyes, but closing off the windows to your soul also reduces the likelihood that you’ll touch your face.

After you vote, monitor your health for 14 days, keeping close watch for traditional COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing, fever, and loss of taste. If you don’t have symptoms but want or need to get tested, don’t do it the next day—wait until at least the fifth day after potential exposure, Kowalik says. This makes it less likely that you’ll receive a false negative.

Waiting in line

Given the long lines already reported at polling places across the nation and the fact that pandemic-related precautions could cause the process to move more slowly than in previous years, strategies for waiting in long lines also apply.

Everyone we talked to for this story recommended heading to the polls as early as you can, or trying to vote when it’s less likely to be crowded, though that may be hard to gauge this year. If you can get time off from work to vote, do so.

Hopefully everyone in line with you will have the same level of respect for their community’s health as you do, but if you’re in line near someone who isn’t wearing a mask or is performing otherwise unhealthy actions, consider leaving the line and jumping back in at the end. Whether or not you can do so depends on how much time you have and the situation at your polling place, Pierre says.

Other considerations include bringing a chair to avoid standing for a long time, stocking up on snacks, wearing comfortable shoes, and bringing electronic devices to keep yourself or any young ones entertained.

Bring a friend or family member, too, for company, an additional vote (if they haven’t yet voted), and to hold your place in line if you have to step away for a phone call, bathroom break, or to get some food.

If you don’t have someone to come with you, make sure you go to the bathroom beforehand and keep in mind that the same strategies for not peeing during a three-hour superhero movie apply to any scenario that involves staying in one place for a long time.

At the polling place, wearing a cape is optional, but wearing a mask and caring about your community will make you a hero in your own right.