Given that the U.S. is now in this third high peak of covid-19, many Americans are understandably nervous about waiting in long lines and entering enclosed crowded spaces in order to cast their vote for the Nov. 3 election. So just how big a transmission risk is voting likely to be? The answer is complicated but encouraging.
As is often the case for any public-facing activity these days, the risk of catching or spreading covid-19 while trying to vote will be heavily dependent on how much of the virus there is in your community to begin with. The less community spread in your area, the less likely you’ll be waiting in line next to someone actively infectious. Unfortunately, much of the U.S. is currently experiencing uncontrolled spread of the viral illness, and only a handful of states aren’t reporting a worrying increase in cases lately. If you’re living in one of the few places where cases are low and staying low, like Vermont or Maine, congrats!
But even if you are in a hotter spot for covid-19, that doesn’t mean your risk of exposure can’t be mitigated at the voting booth.
Krutika Kuppalli, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, helped lead the writing of guidelines on how to vote safely this year that were jointly released by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Infectious Diseases Society of America in August. Kuppalli and other colleagues also recently wrote an article for the American College of Emergency Physicians on how doctors should address concerns from their patients about voting in person. The basic through-line of Kuppalli’s advice is to give any potential virus out there as little opportunity to spread as possible.
“Implementing policies and procedures that limit sustained contact with others will decrease the spread of COVID-19 on Election Day,” she said in an email. “The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.”
She added: “Lower risk election polling settings include those with a wide variety of voting options, longer voting periods (more days and/or more hours), and any other feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations at the same time.”
Of course, the elephant in the room is that the Republican Party has long been invested in making voting harder, not easier, and that hasn’t changed this year. Not only has the GOP and President Donald Trump attacked the legality of mail-in or remote voting—objectively the safest way to vote when it comes to covid-19—they’ve tried to impede local efforts to provide early voting or more polling places, which would similarly reduce the chances of crowding. So in GOP-led areas of the country, it may very well be riskier to vote in-person. In states like Georgia, for instance, there have already been viral photos taken of long lines of people waiting to cast their ballots early, mirroring the lines seen during the primaries that occurred in June.
On the positive side, though, those lines aren’t as scary as you might think, given what we understand about covid-19’s ability to spread outdoors.
“One of the issues has been the lines that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. But those are outdoors, so as long as you maintain separation from folks outdoors, and wear masks, it’s perfectly safe,” Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said by phone. “You just don’t want to pack people together without masks. That’s the major issue. So as long as you protect against that, you can vote safely.”
Once indoors, there are clear steps that can be taken to cut down the risk of covid-19 spread.
“Everyone needs to be wearing a mask, whether it’s the poll workers, the voters—everyone. And it’s also important for them to make sure that those rooms, those buildings are well ventilated to the extent that’s feasible. Those rooms should have windows that can be opened or doors that can be left open, simply to mix in new and old air,” Nouri said. “We know this is a virus that travels through the air. And we know that it likes crowds and indoors. So masks are really important, ventilation is really important. And maintaining distance is very important.”
Other good precautions include proper hand hygiene, such as washing or sanitizing your hands and avoiding touching your face. If you decide to wear a n95 mask, which is designed to lower the risk of breathing in infectious viral particles, then you should additionally make sure that the mask is properly fitted.
If all of this isn’t enough comfort, we have some data from the primaries that suggest voting in person isn’t inherently a major transmission risk. An analysis by researchers Nicholas Christakis and Eric Feltham, detailed in their article for 538 last week, found no evidence that the primaries in Florida, Illinois, or Wisconsin’s Chippewa County led to a significant increase in covid-19 cases. They do caution there are important differences that could possibly change that equation now, such as larger numbers of people voting in the general election and poorer weather conditions that force lines to move indoors. But they ultimately conclude that in-person voting this November can be relatively safe. So does Nouri.
“I don’t think there is any question that voting can be done in a safe manner,” Nouri said. “By taking those precautions, we can make sure that this activity is safe.”