In-Person Voting Requires Safe and Accessible Solutions

Amidst a rapidly changing environment, it is more important than ever that all Americans are empowered to cast their ballots safely, including in-person if they so choose.

Working in bipartisan pairs, canvassers process mail-in ballots in a warehouse at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections headquarters on October 7, 2020 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Photo: Getty Images

By Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass

Despite an unprecedented push for expanding vote-by-mail throughout the country, tens of millions of Americans will still cast their ballots for the 2020 U.S. presidential election in person. They already have begun doing so. In addition to populations that are generally less likely to vote by mail, certain individuals may vote more easily in person, for instance if seeking language assistance or help with a disability. Polling places also represent an indispensable fail-safe on Election Day for those who do not receive absentee ballots on time.

Following a series of primaries throughout the spring and summer that saw the closing of dozens of polling locations, it became apparent that one of the greatest challenges for the fall would be staffing and managing in-person voting safely. The good news is that those responsible for providing a safe way to vote have made tremendous progress in a very short amount of time, aided in part by new government support, private sector help and civil society assistance. The bad news is that the United States has never conducted a presidential election under these conditions.

Ensuring Public Health and Safety

In late June, the CDC released its guidance for preventing spread in polling places, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has published resources as well. Nevertheless, health experts have long warned of a potential cold-weather surge of cases (a “second wave”), because of patterns from other respiratory viruses. With cold weather, more people also tend to congregate indoors, where the virus can be transmitted more easily.

To make the election safer and more accessible for both individual voters and election administrators, the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project and the Stanford d.school have launched a joint project on Designing Healthy Polling and Voting. With resources on ballot drop box security, supplementary poll worker training, signage in multiple languages, and a detailed guidebook with numerous recommendations, the initiative aims to improve voting from a design, implementation, and experience standpoint at the state and county level, and has already been adopted by several administrators to reduce risk.

Source: The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project

Securing Polling Places

Over one-third of Americans typically cast ballots in schools, senior-living centers, or other community facilities that are no longer available to the public. Many facilities that previously served as polling stations are too small to ensure social distancing, and long lines will endanger individuals who are forced to wait in crowds with long exposure time.

Alongside new guidelines, another positive development for preserving U.S. democracy has been the commitment from professional sports leagues to open stadiums and arenas for thousands of individuals to register and vote in person. While teams in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Washington D.C., Indiana, Utah, California and New York have made commitments thus far, the Election Super Centers Project expects the total number to rise and include university and college arenas. Because many usual locations will be inaccessible in the fall, such expansions make an important difference.

Staffing Locations with Poll Workers

In many states, current estimates suggest that the demand for in-person voting will exceed not only the number of available polling places, but also poll workers. In 2018, more than half of U.S. poll workers were over the age of 60, with roughly a quarter over 70. At elevated risk, many of these Americans did not volunteer again during the 2020 U.S. primaries and have signaled they will also be sitting out November.

To address this shortage, numerous efforts have been successful across dozens of states. Campaigns such as Power the Polls have recruited an impressive 500,000 new poll workers. This year, several companies announced that they will pay and give time off to employees who serve as poll workers in the 2020 election. Several social media platforms have launched similar initiatives dedicated to poll worker recruitment.

Source: The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project

Overall, these collective efforts are critical in the face of complicated challenges to traditional patterns of voting this fall. Over 6.2 million Americans have already participated in early voting, but due to COVID-19, more than 300 cases have been filed for election-related litigation, with many still pending or ongoing. Amidst this rapidly changing environment, it is more important than ever that all Americans are empowered to cast their ballots safely, including in-person if they so choose.

To sign up to serve as a poll worker, visit Power the Polls, Work Elections, or the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

For more information on in-person voting, visit Designing Healthy Polling and Voting, Healthy Polling Places, as well as additional research and tools from the Healthy Elections Project. To see real-time research, monitoring and analysis about the Stanford Cyber Policy Center’s programs and partnerships, visit FSI’s Free, Fair and Healthy Elections in 2020.

Elections deadlines, dates, and rules are available at Vote.org. To plan your vote in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, visit Plan Your Vote or How to Vote in the 2020 General Election.

*Note: This is the fourth post in Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass’s series “Preserving American Democracy.”

Read the first post, The Imperative of a Free and Fair Presidential Election in November, the second post, Lessons from Primary Elections in August for Election Day in November, and the third post, Yes, Voting by Mail Remains Safe, Fair, and Democratic in 2020.

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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

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