How to Vote Safely During the Pandemic

You can safely cast your ballot in person despite COVID-19. Here’s how to do it.

Woman and others voting outside during covid-19 pandemic

Updated on October 1, 2020.

The right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy—and the upcoming election will go on despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Casting your ballot in this election may be a particularly important way to support your health as well as well-being in your community.

Voting helps ensure that your community is represented in state and federal resource allocation and funding. But exercising your right to vote is also linked to greater overall well-being, including the ability to live a purposeful and happy life and having the energy, positive outlook and financial freedom to achieve goals, according to data from the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index (CWBI).

Communities with high levels of voter participation are associated with access to key health resources and infrastructure, including access to healthcare, public transportation and healthy foods. 

When it’s time to vote, you don’t have to choose between your health and this civic duty. Make your voice heard in a safe and secure manner.

There could be massive voter turnout for the general election, if a recent Pew Research Center survey is any indication. Eighty-three percent of respondents said “it really matters” who wins the presidential contest, the largest percentage in the last 20 years.

Election officials around the country, meanwhile, are gearing up for a surge of mail-in and absentee ballots because of COVID-19 safety concerns. In-person voting will go on as well, but it’s feared that long lines and cramped polling sites could put voters and poll workers at risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Your risk may never be zero, but you can take precautions and cast a ballot in person. It may just take a little more preparation than usual, but now is the time to plan your voting strategy ahead of the November 3rd election.

Know your options

The first step is verifying that you’re registered to vote. Check your local board of elections website to make sure that you’re registered and that your address is correct. If you’re not registered, your state’s website will likely have instructions on the process. Forty-one states currently allow voters to register online.

Then, decide when, where and how to vote to best avoid crowds and long wait times:

Consider early voting. Many states offer some form of early voting at designated polling spots. That means you can cast your ballot before Election Day. These polling places are typically less crowded since the process is stretched out over several days. On average, early voting begins 22 days before the election and ends a few days before. Check out for the specific rules in your state.

Double check your polling place. Don’t assume the place where you’ve been voting for years will be the same this year. Polls will likely be moved out of senior centers or other places considered high risk. Some states may set up polling sites outdoors or in other safe locations like well-ventilated recreation centers.

Consider going ‘big league.' On June 29, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks announced they would turn their arena into a voting center. Since then, 20 other teams are opening their doors for Election Day, early voting or voter registration. These large venues allow for social distancing and enable voters to move in and out quickly, decreasing the risk of viral spread.

Create a plan before Election Day

Once you determine when and where to vote, there are several things to do before you head to the polls:

  • Review a sample ballot. Besides the presidential election, there are typically other items to vote on, such as ballot questions or state and local contests. Knowing your options and making a decision beforehand can cut down on time spent casting your ballot. You may be able to see your ballot on your state’s election website.
  • Plan your trip. Driving yourself, walking or biking are the safest options. If you need to ride with someone outside of your household, roll down the car windows and wear your mask. If you have to take mass transit, sit at least six feet from others, wear a mask and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you get off.
  • Dress for the weather. Poll workers may ask you to wait outside to limit the number of voters indoors. Watch the weather forecast and plan accordingly.
  • Plan to go at off-peak times. Midmorning can be less crowded. Visit neighborhood social media sites, like Nextdoor, to research wait times at your polling place.
  • Don’t bring the kids. It’s a great lesson in civic responsibility to take kids or grandkids to the polls. This year, however, it’s more important to keep them and others safe from the virus. Arrange to have them stay with another trusted adult.
  • Don’t leave home without the essentials. Bring your own black pen to sign in at the voting precinct, so you don’t have to touch one used by hundreds or thousands of other voters. Make sure you have your photo ID if your state requires one to vote. Of course, bring your mask and hand sanitizer, too.

Stay safe at the polls

The rules and protocols at the polling place will be more complicated than they have been in years past. You’ll want to bring a healthy supply of patience, too, since the process could take longer. Once you make it to your polling site, here’s what you can do to be a safe and responsible voter:

  • Follow directions. Keep six feet between yourself and other voters. There may be stickers on the floor to show you where to stand. You may have to enter through one door and exit through another to practice social distancing.
  • Understand that voting will look and operate differently. Poll workers may wear extra protective equipment or check you in behind plexiglass. Lines may be long due to social distancing and because poll workers will need to sanitize equipment between voters.
  • Don’t clean the voting equipment yourself. Electronic voting booths can be damaged by cleaners and disinfectants. Poll workers will be trained to do this properly. If you use hand sanitizer, make sure your hands are completely dry before touching the equipment.
  • Tidy up your hands. Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol during each step of the process—after touching surfaces, door handles, pens or voting machine equipment. Your polling place may have hand sanitizer but it’s smart to bring your own as well. Wash your hands when you return home.

Should you mail it in?

Many states have changed their mail-in or absentee ballot rules. So, if you decide it’s too risky to vote in person, you most likely have other choices. It all depends on your state’s rules.

Nine states, plus Washington, D.C., are mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington. In others, you have to apply for an absentee ballot. Some states don’t require an excuse to vote absentee while others have added COVID-19 as an acceptable reason.

Request your absentee ballot as soon as possible, fill it out and return it well before Election Day. There are several ways to do this, but again, follow the rules outlined by your state. Depending on your locality, you may be able to:

Mail it. Each state has different requirements for their mail-in ballots, so it is important to read or research exactly what you may need to do for your vote to count. For example, in Pennsylvania, voters need to place their ballot in a secrecy envelope before putting that into a signed outer envelope. Make sure to put a stamp on the return envelope if it doesn’t have pre-paid postage. When your ballot needs to be postmarked varies by state, so check before you send.

Find a ballot box. Many states are scrambling to install official drop boxes to handle the influx of ballots. These usually are located outside libraries, fire stations or other government buildings and are guarded or under video surveillance.

Drop it off. You can hand deliver your ballot to your county’s main board of elections office. Some states allow you to drop it off at a polling place. This needs to be done by the time the polls close on Election Day.

Article sources open article sources

Pew Research Center. “Election 2020: Voters Are Highly Engaged, but Nearly Half Expect To Have Difficulties Voting.” August 13, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters.” Updated June 22, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Vote.Org. “Early Voting by State.” Accessed September 30, 2020.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “State Laws Governing Early Voting.” Updated September 24, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “Online Voter Registration.” Updated August 19, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Infectious Diseases Society of America/Brennan Center for Justice. “Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting.” August 12, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Shaun Powell. “Hawks to Open State Farm Arena as Voting Precinct for Fall Elections.” National Basketball Association. June 29, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
National Basketball Association. “Vote: NBA Arenas & Facilities Being Used for 2020 Election.” September 3, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Healthy Voting: “Healthy Voting in Person.” Accessed September 30, 2020.
Stephanie Valera. “Vote by Mail: What You Need to Know to Vote Safely in the 2020 Elections.” . Natural Resources Defense Council. June 27, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “More States Are Using Ballot Drop Boxes for Absentee Voters, but the Boxes Are Already Drawing Skepticism.” The Washington Post. August 6, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.
U.S. Vote Foundation. “Ballot Return Options.” Accessed September 30, 2020.

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