California sent mail-in ballots to all 21 million active registered voters in an effort to reduce the number of people showing up in-person on Election Day.
Still, thousands are expected to flock to libraries, community centers and other polling locations between now and Tuesday to exercise their right to vote. With COVID-19 infections on the rise nationally and a winter surge possible for California, health experts say it’s crucial that polling places take precautions, and that voters adhere to health guidelines.
In some counties, health department workers are teaming up with local election officials to set up polling places and train workers and volunteers.That means making sure voting centers have signs urging physical distancing for people waiting in line, that workers are given the appropriate protective equipment and that hand sanitizer is readily available, among other measures.
Sarah Bosse, public health director for Madera County, says this is the first time she’s been involved in election planning.
“It’s certainly an unusual year,” she said. “Because of COVID and because we’re seeing a lot more people voting than in the past. Which is great, but it just poses some puzzles for us as public health officials.”
Health experts interviewed by CapRadio agreed that with the appropriate planning and the cooperation of the public, voting in-person can be done relatively safely. Here are some tips to stay safe while voting this election:
If You Can, Vote Remotely
Bosse says people should still opt for remote voting options as much as they can, such as mailing in or dropping off ballots.
But Hannah Klain, an attorney with the pro-democracy Brennan Center for Justice which put out Healthy In-Person Voting Guidelines this summer, says there are certain groups of people that strongly prefer or need to vote in person.
“We have communities with language assistance needs … voters who may have certain disabilities may prefer to vote in person,” she said. “Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their sacred, fundamental right to vote and their health.”
Health experts interviewed by CapRadio agreed that with the appropriate planning and the cooperation of the public, voting in-person can be done relatively safely.
What To Expect At The Polls
The office of the California Secretary of State has published detailed guidance for voting centers, such as:
Create different stations for check-in, voting and other stopping points, separated by at least six feet
Place partitions where physical distancing can’t be accomplished
Place floor marking to show people how to stand apart
Post signs guiding voters to maintain distance, assign an election worker to give voters directions
Set up a separate entrance and exit, where possible
Open doors and windows to ventilate the room
Dr. Penny Borenstein, health officer for San Luis Obispo county, says her department carefully placed voting centers in buildings where they knew people could be spread out, and where election workers could direct traffic in a safe way.
She says spreading out the number of days in-person voting is available — many voting centers are open beginning this Saturday — should also help reduce large crowds.
Borenstein says the risk of the virus lingering in the air inside a voting booth is unlikely, given the short duration of time a voter would be in there, and that the main concern is direct contact between voters and poll workers.
“We’ve seen images of long voting lines well in advance of election day,” she said. “As long as people really stay spread out and keep to themselves during the process and wear a face covering, those are going to be the most critical elements of ensuring their safety.”
Other precautions counties are taking for in-person voters include one-time use pens, or in situations where voting is electronic, finger covers or personal-use Q-tips for touching the screen.
How To Protect Yourself
If you’re planning to head to a voting center on or before Election Day, health experts say to take the following precautions to protect yourself:
Wear a mask
Stay at least six feet from others when plexiglass is not present
Bring your own hand sanitizer
Consider bringing a face shield or goggles
Go to the polls by yourself, don’t bring children or other household members
If you feel worried you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 while voting, Borenstein says to wait five days before getting screened, as it takes that long for the virus to show up on a test.
Bosse, of Madera County, says it’s important for people to stay focused while voting and be ready to pay attention to instructions, either from signs or from poll workers. And she says people may need to put extra distance between themselves and others.
“We think it’s really important that people understand that if someone is not wearing a mask … there might be a medical reason or others may not want to as well,” she said. “A person who’s not wearing a mask can just remain at a further distance from other people, and that’s still safe.”
Some jurisdictions, such as El Dorado County, are setting up outdoor booths for the first time to accommodate people who can't wear masks for medical reasons, or refuse to wear a mask.
“People who have masks will be directed inside,” said Bill O’Neill, El Dorado County Registrar of Voters. “We don’t want it to be the primary method for people to vote outside, because it’s just far more secure to keep it inside. But if there’s just a couple people outside, we can manage that.”
California law doesn’t require people to wear masks in order to vote.
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