How to Run an Election in a Pandemic

Three days from now, millions of voters in Arizona, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio will grasp the same door handles, drag their fingers across the same touch-screen voting machines, and wait in long lines with dozens of other people.

All four states have reported multiple cases of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. It’s a major health risk “to have people coming together in large numbers at this time,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “When you bring people together in close proximity for extended periods of time, that is where you see explosions of disease. It’s tough to stay apart when you’re standing in a line” to vote, she added.

And the threat of the coronavirus could—and likely will—compound the issues already plaguing America’s election systems: Coronavirus fears could lead to depressed turnout, longer lines, and general confusion for voters on Election Day. “This is building up to a level that it could clearly cause real problems,” warns David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

When the very act of voting in person puts people at risk, there aren’t easy solutions. Louisiana is delaying its presidential primary, which was scheduled for April 4, for two months over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, officials there announced yesterday. Postponing “for a little while, until we have a better handle of what’s going on,” is a good idea, Watson said.

But there’s simply not enough time for the states that vote Tuesday to make major adjustments, or switch to a vote-by-mail system, election experts say.

State election officials are trying to make the best of a difficult situation. They’ve encouraged people to send in absentee ballots through the mail. But in the four states that vote Tuesday, the deadline to request an absentee ballot has already passed. The next-best option, then, is for people to vote early at designated sites at some point before Tuesday, although if enough people show up at these early-voting sites, that would carry risks, too. While the early-voting period has ended in Arizona, this is still an option for people in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida.

Election officials expect that some regular voters will not show up on Tuesday, for fear of contracting the virus. But they still expect that many people—millions of them—will vote in person. And for that reason, the focus has shifted to cleanliness. Officials in each of the four states are preparing to arm polling sites with sanitation supplies, which in most cases means providing gloves for poll workers to wear, hand sanitizer, isopropyl-alcohol wipes to clean the voting machines between each use, and Clorox wipes for tables and other surfaces. Officials are encouraging people to bring their own pens to fill out forms, and training poll workers in proper equipment-cleaning and hand-washing.

The mere threat of contracting the coronavirus is already causing disruption. State officials have had to close polling locations with a high population of vulnerable people, such as nursing homes and other care facilities. Just last week, Ohio shuttered more than 100 poll locations, and election officials are still working to find replacement sites. “There could be a lot of confusion” on Tuesday, Pepper says. “People are used to going to the same place. They often will get a postcard [alerting them to a relocation], but they don’t see it, so they go to their old place.”

Poll workers, many of whom are elderly and therefore more susceptible to the virus, will be putting their health at risk if they show up for a 12- or 14-hour shift on Election Day, and a lot of them are canceling. “In a normal election, you may have a 10 percent vacancy rate. We’ve hit that number already,” John Mirkovic, the deputy county clerk for policy in Cook County, Illinois, told me. “We could potentially have 20 or 25 percent called off by Election Day. If enough poll workers from one election site call in sick or don’t show up on Tuesday, that polling location could be forced to close. Voters should check their county elections-board website before heading to the polls, Mirkovic said. “They may find that their local polling place will be shut down.”

A poll-worker shortage could also mean fewer people directing voter traffic and running the voting machines. “If [poll workers] decide not to come, it would be hard to replace them” the day of, says Michael Hanmer, the research director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. Lines will be longer, he says, and more mistakes will be made, including errors checking people in and eligible voters being turned away.

Sarah Eppnick, a 39-year-old who lives in the Cleveland suburbs, is one of the many poll workers across the country who have canceled their scheduled shifts ahead of Tuesday. “I feel terrible,” she told me. “But I just don’t feel that sitting there for two hours with a constant flow of traffic coming in is really in the best interest of my health and for my loved ones.” On the other hand, 68-year-old Gail Hamer just signed up to volunteer, despite acknowledging that her age and preexisting respiratory problems make her particularly vulnerable to the virus. “I’m concerned; I’m aware,” she said, but “I’m willing to take the risk.”

Election officials have been asking young, healthy people to volunteer or work at polling sites—especially students whose classes might have been canceled in light of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s often a paid position, and many officials are relaxing training requirements out of sheer necessity, Mirkovic said. Wahinya Njau, a 22-year-old student at Ohio State University, is planning to volunteer at a polling site in Columbus now that his schedule is freed up. “I thought, I’m literally not doing anything Tuesday,” Njau told me with a laugh. “Why not?

These problems will likely only get worse as the primary season wears on. “We’re going to see a lot more disease over the next few weeks,” Watson said. “If leaders can consider other methods to vote as well as postponing these primaries, that is definitely worth considering.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon recently introduced legislation that would allow all Americans to vote by mail ahead of the generation election, and states voting later in the spring will have more flexibility to expand their absentee-voting deadlines and relax their early-voting rules. Hanmer and other experts argue that every state should use the next few months to set up an emergency vote-by-mail system in time for the general election in November—a crucial reform that could eliminate many of the challenges states face ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

But for millions of Americans, participating in democracy on Tuesday will come with a certain amount of risk. “This is the most important election of my lifetime,” Hamer, the 68-year-old poll worker, told me. “Somebody has to be there to do this job.”

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Elaine Godfrey is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.