NOT EVERYONE will be able or willing to vote by mail in the November presidential election. People with special needs, such as the visually impaired; people who need language assistance; and those without a valid address might have to show up to a polling place even in states where absentee balloting is broadly encouraged. Some people simply will prefer to vote in person, even in a pandemic. Recent primary elections, such as the ones in D.C. and Wisconsin, have shown the chaos that occurs when officials shut down too many voting sites: Lines stretch for hours, people are confused about where to go, and voting is deterred.
So even as election officials in many states scramble to ramp up their capacity to handle mailed ballots, they must also prepare to host millions of voters seeking to show up in person in the midst of a pandemic. The Infectious Diseases Society of America and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice released a road map last week for how to do this safely. In-person voting does not have to be risky, they say, but officials will have to work hard to ensure people do not have to choose between their health and their vote.
Indeed, the experts argue that election officials should close few, if any, polling locations — and should even consider expanding the number of voting sites to thin out crowds. This would require recruiting more polling workers across age groups, as last-minute absences forced the shutdown of many polling places during primary season. These polling workers should be specially trained on safety and sanitation procedures — and how not to jam ballot scanners with hand sanitizer. They should preferably be tested for covid-19 before showing up.
Some polling sites, like those in senior-care facilities, will no longer be viable. Voting should take place in large, well-ventilated spaces such as school gyms, recreation centers, convention centers and parking lots. Voters should be mailed at least two warnings about location changes. At the sites, HVAC systems should be cranked up to promote air circulation, and good air filters should be used.
When voters arrive, they should be offered masks if their faces are not already covered. It should be clear how far apart voters should stand from one another. They should not want for hand sanitizer. Close interaction with polling workers should take place through plexiglass screens. Each voter should get his or her own pen or pencil, or a finger covering for completing an electronic ballot. Polling workers should sanitize the equipment, bathrooms and other high-touch areas frequently.
In areas with enough space, curbside voting should be an option. Voters who feel sick should stay in their cars if at all possible, and polling workers helping them should get extra protective equipment such as face shields.
Every election official in the country should be following this road map. They should also advertise how well they are observing these guidelines. If more Americans have confidence that voting is safe, more will vote.
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