Tips for voting safely during a pandemic

COVID-19 is serious—but so is participating in American democracy

An election during a global pandemic can present challenges for voters, but there are still safe ways to fulfill your civic duty.

For Asst. Prof. Mai Tuyet Pho of the University of Chicago Medicine, the key is to have a plan—whether that means voting by mail, dropping off your ballot early, or avoiding crowds.

“As someone who’s passionate about the importance of participating in American democracy, I can tell you there’s absolutely nothing about COVID-19 that should prevent you from making sure your voice is heard on Nov. 3,” said Pho, an infectious diseases specialist. “However, unlike previous years, voters everywhere will need to spend extra time developing a plan to cast their ballots safely. 

With just a few weeks left until polls close on the 2020 election, Pho offers her top recommendations on how to stay safe when voting.

Vote by mail for the lowest risk

I view this year’s election as one that has tiered risk based on how and when we vote. If possible, vote absentee—assuming it’s not too late to request a mail-in ballot in your state. This is your safest option and lets you vote from home. Make sure you allow enough time to return your ballot by mail or, if you’re short on time, at an in-person drop-off location. Some states require that you sign your envelope and have a witness sign it too.

Vote early to avoid crowds

If you’re unable to do absentee or mail-in voting, vote in person during your state’s early voting period. This option gives you days to pick from and allows you to choose a time when polls may be less crowded, like late mornings or early afternoons. Another benefit to early voting is that you can often pick your early polling location if your city has more than one option. If you’re not sure about crowds, check in with your local election office. Some communities are providing real-time information about wait times at polling locations. Others even allow curbside or drive-through voting to minimize exposure.

Protect yourself with masks, eye protection and hand sanitizer

You’ve heard doctors like me talk about it again and again, but the best things you can do to stay safe when voting are what you’re already doing every day.

  • Keep at least six feet of distance from other people. You may want more space if you’re in a poorly ventilated area.
  • Wear a face mask at all times and wear some kind of eye protection, especially if you’re inside with others who aren’t wearing masks.
  • Avoid touching your mask and face.
  • Sanitize (or wash) your hands before and after you enter your polling place. 

You may be able to use your own black ballpoint or felt-tipped pen or a stylus to sign in and fill out your ballot, but please check with poll workers at your voting location first to see if that’s acceptable. If not, use the items they provide you and wash or sanitize your hands afterward.

Pay attention to posted informational signs

Polling precincts should be following election-specific infection control guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes things like having visual cues on the floor to ensure there’s enough distance between people and having clearly marked entry and exit signs to avoid bottlenecks. Voting booths should be spaced far apart and they should have supplies like hand sanitizer available. But it’s always a good bet to bring some of your own. 

You may be inclined to try to wipe down a voting machine, pen, or even your ballot before you start voting. But experts say that might damage your ballot or interfere with the accuracy of your voting machine. Instead, sanitize your hands when you walk in and once again on your way out.

Consider your transportation options

If you’re able, avoid public transportation during rush hour when trains and buses are more likely to be crowded. If you’re driving with others or taking a ride share like Lyft or Uber, make sure you’re wearing a mask and the driver is too. It’s best to keep the windows down so there’s lots of fresh air in the vehicle.

Plan to wait

It’s common to face long lines during regular elections. But the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic mean long waits may be all but inevitable in some locations. I tell my patients to have a plan and then make sure they have a backup plan. In addition to all the standard social distancing and masking, that means you may want to make sure you have a small water bottle with you or snacks. If you’re diabetic or asthmatic, keep things like an inhaler or insulin with you, too. If you need to remove your mask to eat or drink, do your best to keep it brief.

Make sure you're feeling well

While COVID-19 can cause severe illness, it can also have very mild forms that seem more like seasonal allergies. If you’re sick, you absolutely need to stay home and avoid people. That’s even more reason to consider voting early or absentee.

I know it can be intimidating to go into a crowded place right now, especially when you don’t have control of other people’s safety precautions. But the important thing to remember is that there are steps you can take to stay safe when you’re casting your ballot. Just make sure you have a plan.

—A version of this story was first published by the University of Chicago Medicine.