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OPINION

Can in-person voting be made safe enough during the coronavirus pandemic? Yes

In-person voting is safe and can be made as low risk as other everyday activities.

A voter casts their ballot at a vote by mail dropbox at Boston City Hall.
A voter casts their ballot at a vote by mail dropbox at Boston City Hall.Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is one of the major issues of the 2020 election, and yet it is the very same issue that may keep millions of Americans from being able to vote in what may be the most important election in over 50 years. As Democratic nominee Joe Biden said, “This election is about the soul of the nation.”

While some states are making voting by mail easier during the pandemic, politics and the not-so-hidden desire for voter suppression means that many other states will not adopt policies that permit easy voting by mail. Consequently, two questions become important: How safe is in-person voting? Can it be made safe enough?

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The best approach to minimize risk and ensure people’s right to the franchise during a pandemic is to extend voting by mail. Red, blue, and purple states — Utah, Oregon, Hawaii, Washington state, and Colorado — have universal mail voting. And they have few detectable problems of fraud. As Massachusetts showed in its Sept. 1 primary, it’s possible to pivot and not allow COVID to preclude easy and effective voting. The state proactively informed all voters they could vote by mail and that they could use widely distributed drop-off boxes instead of the US Postal Service to ensure delivery. Massachusetts voters set a record, with 1.7 million votes cast in the state’s primary. There were no reports of fraud, and results were available quickly.

But many states are not making voting easier — and seem to be glad to see fewer voters. For example, during the April Wisconsin primary, the number of polling places was drastically reduced to just five in Milwaukee, a city with nearly 300,000 registered voters.

In states unwilling to permit wider voting-by-mail options, citizens want to know if traditional voting in person is safe. Yes, voting in person can be safe. Its risk level is analogous to shopping in a grocery store or going to a COVID-19 testing clinic — based on an index we developed which puts voting in a low-medium risk category, along with outdoor, distanced sports like tennis or golf.

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True, there have been a few cases of COVID linked to voting in primaries. But there have been no super-spreading events or serious hotspots after primary voting, in which tens of millions of Americans voted. Importantly, these cases were early in the primary process, before the importance of wearing face masks was widely recognized and prior to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization issuing widespread guidance. Voting by mail should be utilized whenever possible to decrease the burden on those in-person voting centers and help enhance safety through fewer people.

Five simple safety precautions can increase the safety of in-person voting. Everyone — voters and poll workers — should wear a mask that covers both mouth and nose. Having a mask at the chin or leaving the nostrils exposed is like not wearing a mask. Wearing a mask decreases transmission in both directions. Second, there should be Plexiglass between the poll workers and the voters, just as there is in post offices and grocery stores.

Additionally, people should stand 6 feet apart while standing in line to vote, and waiting in line to vote should be done outside, not inside, a building or a closed room, since being in enclosed spaces enhances transmission. Indoor areas should allow for adequate social distancing and ensure appropriate ventilation. Hand hygiene and cleaning/disinfection remain important. Any part of the voting machine that is touched needs to be cleaned and disinfected between voters. And voters should wash their hands or sanitize them right after touching the pads and voting.

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Indeed, following these procedures should reduce transmission significantly. As Dr. Paul Offit, infectious disease and vaccine expert and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said, “If I am wearing a mask and you are wearing a mask and we are 6 feet apart, there is no way we should transmit the coronavirus to each other.”

Despite the efforts of President Trump and some state houses to limit voting, there is no reason Americans should be denied the right to vote in the midst of this COVID pandemic. In-person voting is safe and can be made as low risk as other everyday activities. Go out and vote with a clear conscience, for the good of the country, on Nov. 3.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel is vice provost of Global Initiatives and codirector of the Healthcare Transformation Institute Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. James Phillips is an emergency room physician and director of Disaster and Operational Medicine at George Washington University Medical School. Saskia Popescu is an epidemiologist and infection control specialist in Arizona. They are partners in COVID-19 Recovery Consulting.

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