Our research shows what to do now to maximize election turnout and voter health amid COVIDBlau Medical News
Andrew B. Hall and Lawrence M. Wein, Opinion contributors
Published 7:00 a.m. ET July 27, 2020 | Updated 11:39 a.m. ET July 27, 2020
Civil rights experts point to long wait times to vote as a sign of growing voter suppression in the U.S. Here’s what to expect in the 2020 election.
Start preparations now. Encourage vote by mail, educate people about the health risks of voting in person, and make voting Nov. 3 as safe as possible.
COVID-19 threatens to disrupt America’s election this November, but Americans are not sure how to vote safely and do not agree on the risks they may be facing. A mid-June New York Times/Siena College poll in six battleground states found that if voting had occurred during the week they were interviewed — 40% of Biden supporters and 6% of Trump supporters would feel uncomfortable voting in person.
Less than 100 days before the election, what can we do to maximize voter turnout while minimizing the health impact? Three things: Encourage voters to vote by mail, educate the public about the health risks of voting in person, and mitigate the risks of voting in person.
The safest option is to expand opportunities to vote by mail. Despite high-profile concerns that all-mail elections might favor Democrats, one of us (Andrew) co-authored recent research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed vote by mail has not historically favored one party or the other. The researchers collected data on the county-level rollout of all-mail elections in California, Utah and Washington, evaluating how each party’s fortunes changed.
Democratic candidates performed no better in counties that switched to all-mail elections in these states. Democratic voters did not turn out more than Republican voters in these counties, either. Indeed, many voters in both parties chose to vote by mail when it became available, suggesting that the program is broadly popular. And safeguards on how ballots are mailed out and how they are verified before they are counted ensure that widespread voter fraud is highly unlikely.
Mail is surest way to avoid COVID
While switching to all-mail elections may not be logistically or politically feasible for all jurisdictions, many states allow voters to opt in to voting by mail freely — including the six battlegrounds cited above: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This is known as “no-excuse absentee voting.” Other states require excuses to vote by mail, but some have included fear of COVID-19 as a valid excuse. It is vitally important to educate voters in all of these states about how to request and submit a mail-in ballot, and to emphasize that there is nothing partisan about voting by mail.
Voting by mail is the surest way to avoid infection, but state policies and personal preferences will still lead many Americans to vote in person. How safe will it be to vote in person during COVID-19, and how can we make it as safe as possible?
The likelihood of contracting the coronavirus while voting depends on two things: the amount of social distancing experienced while voting and the number of infectious people who vote in person or work at the polls. Fortunately, we have some data to calibrate this risk. The 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking the extension of an absentee ballot deadline in the Wisconsin primary created a huge crowdsourced natural experiment: Over 400,000 people voted in person on April 7.
The second author of this piece (Larry) co-wrote a population-level analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health. We detected no surge of infections or hospitalizations in the 12 days following the election.The Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced on May 15 that 71 voters and poll workers tested positive for the coronavirus, many of whom also experienced nonvoting exposures. Using a coronavirus fatality risk of 1% for known cases, we estimate that the fatality risk of voting that day was roughly the equivalent of driving 100 miles, which is an activity that most Americans would not think twice about.
From the Editorial Board: Coronavirus makes voting by mail even more important
How do we extrapolate this risk to in-person voting Nov. 3? Social distancing guidelines were widely adopted on April 7 in Wisconsin, as they should be this fall. The average waiting time for voters in Milwaukee was 90 minutes to two hours, although much less in other parts of the state. Due to the variation in COVID-19 testing across the United States, the most reliable metric for calibrating the coronavirus prevalence, even despite its two-week time lag, may be the number of new coronavirus hospitalizations per person per day, which was about one per day per 100,000 Wisconsinites in early April.
The coronavirus risk from voting should be roughly linear in this metric. If we predict that a U.S. state will have two coronavirus hospitalizations per day per 100,000 residents, then the risk of infection in that state would be approximately twice what it was in Wisconsin on April 7.
Reduce risk at polling places
Now that we have assessed the risk, how do we reduce it? Most important, we need to make sure that the coronavirus prevalence is reasonably low on Nov. 3.
Data from New York City and Seattle suggests that it takes approximately three weeks of social distancing to cut the number of new cases in half. This means that by mid-October, regardless of the state of the pandemic, governors and mayors should institute social distancing rules (require masks, disallow large gatherings, limit or prohibit indoor dining and drinking). Without a mid-October clampdown, we risk an unexpected COVID surge that would be inextinguishable before Election Day.
Keep it simple, Democrats: Job One is making sure Americans can cast votes
Using best practices at the polls is imperative, as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance on COVID-19 and elections lays out. For instance, as on April 7, give masks and latex gloves to poll workers, use isopropyl alcohol wipes to clean voting equipment, make hand sanitizer available to voters, require voters to use masks, and use painting tape and signs to facilitate social distancing.
In addition, every effort should be made to have enough poll workers, voting machines and polling places to keep waiting times short. Another way to reduce crowds is to offer off-peak and early in-person voting; the latter may require pushing forward the start of the clampdown to early October.
This election is too important to allow it to be hijacked by the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, we still have several months to make sure this does not happen. Voting can be made reasonably safe if we start preparing now. Our democracy depends on it.
Andrew B. Hall is a political science professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewbhall. Lawrence M. Wein is the Jeffrey S. Skoll Professor of Management Science at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
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