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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How to Stay Healthy and Safe While Voting in 2020

A poll worker wearing PPE directs a voter wearing a face mask to polling station

A poll worker wearing PPE directs a voter wearing a face mask to polling station

Charles E. Binkley, MD

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

Charles Binkley (@CharlesBinkley) is the director of Bioethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

The upcoming elections on November 3 have the potential to affect your health in many different ways, some directly and some indirectly. Almost certainly, the outcome of the election will influence the future of health care reform. In addition, there may be state ballot initiatives, such as Proposition 23 in California which if passed would require physicians or advanced health providers to be physically present at dialysis clinics.

Besides these very important and far reaching influences on your health, there is also the potential for more direct and immediate effects while voting this year. These arise from the two important threats which we uniquely and simultaneously face in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for polling place violence.

As voters, how can we protect ourselves from both of these threats?

COVID-19 and Voting

The safest way to avoid possible infection with COVID-19 while voting this year is to vote by mail if that option is available to you. In some states, such as here in California, every registered voter will be sent a ballot. The ballot can be returned either by post or at a designated return site. Because of COVID-19, other states are giving voters the option to request an absentee ballot in advance. In seven states, voters will need to specify a reason beside COVID-19 when requesting an absentee ballot. Many voters in these states will have to vote in person.

If you either have to vote in person or for whatever reason decide to do so, you can still protect yourself against infection with COVID-19. Follow the same basic measures as you should for any other public activity. It may be good to review:

  1. Socially distance. Stay at least 6 feet away from anyone other than those with whom you live. If another person gets closer than 6 feet, politely ask them to give you space.
  2. Wear a mask or face covering. This is a very effective means of preventing the spread of respiratory infections. It both protects you and other people around you.
  3. Practice good hand hygiene. Take hand sanitizer containing 60-90% alcohol with you to the polling station. Apply it liberally and often, especially after touching anything. When you leave the polling place, sanitize your hands before removing your mask. When you reach a place with soap and water, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Do not touch your face. If you have to adjust your mask, apply hand sanitizer before and after. COVID-19 can only cause an infection if it enters your body through your eyes, mouth, or nose. If you have to touch your face, sanitize your hands before and after doing so.
  5. Bring your own black pen. If you forgot your pen, or have to use a special stylus to vote, use your hand sanitizer to clean the instrument and sanitize your hands before and after using it.
  6. Try to avoid peak times and, if possible, fill your ballot out in advance.

Voter Intimidation and Violence at Polling Places

Voting in a free election is considered sacred by many Americans. It is a right, a privilege, and for many an obligation. For myriad reasons, there is credible evidence that individuals and groups will attempt to suppress voting, particularly in communities of color, through intimidation. The current political and social tensions in our country raise the possibility that some attempts to intimidate voters could turn violent. There are things you can do to keep yourself safe while exercising your right to vote.

One of the things that’s important to understand in general is what is permissible and what is not permissible activity at polling places.

Poll watchers and challengers are individuals representing each political party that act as observers at polling places to assure that rules are followed and that there are no irregularities. They CAN NOT in any way try to influence your ability to vote nor the candidate for who you are voting. There are qualifications to be a poll watcher or challenger which vary by state. However, poll watchers and observers should not approach voters directly. Although the specific rules vary, if a poll watcher or observer believes that there is an irregularity in the process, they are to notify the election staff at the polling place or contact the Secretary of State. Most states have a dedicated hotline for such reports. They are not to approach the voter directly.

Electioneering is when someone at a polling place may try to persuade you to vote for a specific candidate. Electioneers are typically prohibited from coming closer than some set distance to the polling place itself, determined by the Secretary of State. However, they should not attempt to intimidate you or prevent you from voting. In some instances they can carry a sign advertising their candidate, offer to answer questions or give you literature. Anything beyond that is not permitted.

Ill-intended forms of poll watching, challenging, and electioneering have the potential to result in voter intimidation. Voter intimidation is illegal. An even more extreme measure is the potential for armed militias to be present at polling stations, acting as self-appointed poll observers. At times, the militia members will dress in uniforms that can make it difficult to determine if they are truly officials or not. For some voters, the very presence of large numbers of armed individuals in military style dress can be very intimidating. Each state has specific laws prohibiting unauthorized private militia groups. Georgetown University has created fact sheets for each of the 50 states on what constitutes an unlawful militia and what you should do if you see an armed group around a polling place.

No one should feel intimidated when they are voting. However if you do feel intimidated while voting, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe.

  • If you feel intimidated, report the incident to the officials at the polling place.
  • In addition, contact:
    • Election Protection Hotline 855-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). Assistance in also available in Spanish at 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888- 839-8682), in Arabic at 844- YALLA-US (844-915-5187), and Asian languages at 888-API-VOTE (1-888-174-8683). A video call number for American Sign Language is available at 301-818-VOTE (301-818-8683).
    • US Department of Justice voting rights hotline (1-800-253-3931).
    • Program these numbers into your phone or take them with you to the polling place.
    • Note what the people are doing, whether they are armed, if they are wearing any insignia, if they are patrolling or acting like law enforcement, and if they are provoking or threatening violence.
  • DO NOT ENGAGE with the individuals. Do not challenge the individuals or argue with them. Try to de-escalate the situation. The important thing is to keep yourself and others safe, and cast your vote.
  • If you feel like there is imminent danger to yourself or someone else, contact the police.

Although there are unique issues during the upcoming 2020 election, none of them should keep you from exercising your constitutional right to vote. There is no need to be afraid either of COVID-19 or the possibility of intimidation at polling places. If possible, vote by mail. If that’s not an option, follow these measures to keep yourself safe and by all means, VOTE!

Oct 27, 2020

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