If You Can’t Vote by Mail This Year, Don’t Panic

Your life or your vote: That’s how many observers and participants framed the decision whether to vote in person in last month’s Wisconsin primary. A mix of Democratic mismanagement and Republican cynicism dragged thousands of people to the polls who would rather have voted absentee. Thousands more were effectively disenfranchised. In one viral photo, a mask-wearing woman standing in a stretched-out line on a Milwaukee sidewalk held up a sign reading “This is ridiculous.” The New York Times captured the mood when it referred to the election as “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” It looked like the fuse was lit on a Covid-19 contagion bomb.

And yet, more than a month later, it seems the explosion never came.

One of the very few bright spots over the past few weeks is the growing evidence that some activities might not be as dangerous as we thought—sunbathing at the beach, hanging out in a park, letting young kids hug their grandparents, and most importantly, voting. In early April, it was not unreasonable to see in-person voting as a perilous gamble, and to worry that we’d be apocalyptically screwed unless every single ballot could be sent by mail. But the worst fears haven’t materialized, and in the meantime we’ve learned more about how the virus spreads. Research suggests that the risk of Covid-19 transmission is at its highest when people are in close, prolonged indoor contact, and cases of outdoor transmission appear to be very rare. From a public health perspective, voting in person may be more like getting takeout than attending a rock concert: not risk-free, but, with the right precautions in place, hardly Russian roulette.

Unfortunately, the debate about how to hold elections hasn’t quite caught up. That’s thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s ongoing war against expanded vote-by-mail, which he falsely equates with voter fraud. Trump has a way of setting the terms of debate. But while access to absentee ballots is crucial, it’s not the whole of the matter. It would do major harm if all the people who still must vote in person this November—and there will be millions of them—become convinced that a visit to the polls incurs mortal peril. That outsize fear could also lead officials to implement policies that are risky in other ways, such as expanded online voting, which could be an election-security disaster.

In an ideal scenario, everyone would be able and willing to vote remotely, and we wouldn’t have to worry about making polling places as safe as they can be. But if it isn’t clear already, 2020 has no room for ideal scenarios.

If the Wisconsin primary caused a spike in cases, it has been hard to find the evidence. The state’s department of health did manage to link 71 cases to the election, but that number doesn’t tell us much: The department asked some, but not all, people who tested positive in the weeks after the election whether they had voted in person or worked at the polls—and the researchers had no way of knowing whether people who were sick had actually caught the virus on the day of the election.

The state’s most crowded polling stations presumably would have posed the greatest risk for starting an outbreak. But in Milwaukee, where about 18,000 people voted in person at only five polling sites, health officials reported only seven cases that they believed to be a result of the election. In Green Bay, where only two sites were open and people waited in line for hours, officials didn’t trace any increase to voting. Sandy Juno, the clerk of Brown County, which includes Green Bay, regretted those delays, but said “there was no connection made between people that participated in in-person voting, whether the voters or the [poll workers], and getting sick from the coronavirus.”

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One group of economists released a working paper last week purporting to find a strong positive correlation between in-person voting and the positive Covid-19 case rate in a given Wisconsin county. The team found that, three weeks after the election, every 10 percent increase in in-person votes corresponded to a 17 percent increase in the positive test rate and a 12 percent increase in the total number of positive tests.

But it’s hard to draw any firm conclusion from the study, in part because the positive test rate depends on how many tests are being administered, and to whom—both of which may vary over time. If you look at the number of deaths from Covid-19, which is a bit easier to measure, there was clearly no statewide spike in the weeks after the April elections.

“The current rush to produce research related to the pandemic is important, but means readers need to be extra wary in processing the results, especially in nonexperimental studies,” said David Abrams, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies causal inference, in an email after reviewing the paper. “The study on in-person voting implies a few minutes outside the home doubles the positive rate of Covid cases. When an unreviewed study finds results that strain plausibility, the right thing to do is wait for further corroboration.”

It seems counterintuitive. How could thousands of people voting in person on the same day not lead to a big jump in infections? Well, think back to those viral images of lines stretching around the block. At the time, they looked scary. But what those pictures are actually showing are people standing outside, six feet or so apart from each other, wearing masks. That might be burdensome for those involved, but the available science suggests it’s not much of a health risk.

“People quietly standing in line with masks on is a totally different issue than people congregating, singing, talking back and forth to each other,” said Howard Leibrand, a public health official in Skagit County, Washington, and the coauthor of a CDC study analyzing a viral outbreak at a now-infamous choir rehearsal. “I think that if you had a cooperative populace, certainly from what I’ve seen, you could do this. I think you could make [voting] safer and safer, but maybe never completely safe—but then neither is the grocery store.”

With voting, as with so much else, the key is to get away from binary thinking—it’s either safe or not—and focus instead on a few straightforward principles of harm reduction.

The most obvious is to protect poll workers. They’re coming into contact with the most people, and most are over the age of 60. If they’re too scared to show up, the election can’t happen. One of the seven Milwaukee cases believed to be tied to the primary, for instance, was a poll worker. It’s only one case, but it’s the most important kind to avoid. Brian Kruse, the election commissioner for Douglas County, Nebraska, which includes Omaha, said that for Nebraska’s May 12 primary, every worker in his county was outfitted with an N95 mask, gloves, and a face shield, plus hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to clean equipment between each voter.

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The second key principle is to keep voters outside as much as possible, only having them go inside when it’s their turn to vote. Or not go inside at all: Voters could fill out their ballots at a table on the street. (Cities might invest in tents or restaurant-style umbrellas in case of rain or excessive heat.) In last month’s election, Milwaukee offered drive-through voting in the days before election day, allowing people to vote without getting out of their car; that could be expanded to Election Day itself. One group of election experts also recommends “having a separate area in each location for self-identified older, vulnerable, or immune-compromised voters,” where large crowds are expected.

Of course, it’s even better if people can vote without leaving their house. “One of the big things we did is we encouraged vote-by-mail,” said Kruse, a Republican. The fact that 85 to 90 percent of the votes in his county came in this way, he noted, put less pressure on in-person polling places. At the same time, Kruse prioritized keeping as many neighborhood polling sites open as possible, dropping just from 222 to 200. That not only cuts down on crowds, but also spares more people from having to brave public transit.

This is where Milwaukee and Green Bay ran into trouble. In normal times, reducing polling sites in Democratic-leaning areas, especially black communities, is part of the Republican Party’s voter suppression handbook. But in this case, Democratic city governments made questionable calls in difficult circumstances. After a failed bid to postpone the election entirely, and amid concerns that poll workers were too afraid to show up, Milwaukee shut down all but five of the city’s 180 polling sites. Green Bay went from 31 to just two, and turned down the governor’s offer to have National Guard members work the polls instead.

The good news is election officials around the country are starting to apply the principles described above. In fact, despite the problems in Milwaukee and Green Bay, many jurisdictions in Wisconsin did a good job of reducing risk, which may help explain why the looming outbreak never broke out.

Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.

“I wholly agree that we’re going to have in-person voting, and we need to have in-person voting,” said Wendy R. Weiser, who directs the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “And I wholly agree that that’s possible to do, and we need to do it right.”

The problem, she said, is that doing it right costs money—money that state and local governments simply don’t have. Printing, mailing, receiving, and counting absentee ballots, all these expenses add up. Same with safety measures, like buying protective equipment for poll workers. As of now, state and local budgets are nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs of a well-run November election amid an ongoing pandemic. And they’re about to get crushed as the economic collapse deepens.

sanitation workers cleaning stairs

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The only entity that can make up the shortfall is the federal government. In one of its stimulus bills, Congress provided $400 million to states for elections. It’s a good start, but a report recently published by the Brennan Center concludes that the funding will likely only cover a small fraction of most states’ costs.

“Election officials know what they need to do,” Weiser said. “There’s a lot of great examples in place of ways to get this done that are currently operational in different states, red, blue, purple, all across the US. It’s not rocket science. It’s literally a matter of resources and political will.”

We know two things for certain about the remaining primary elections this year, and of course, the general in November. First, a record number of people will decide to vote by mail. Second, a really significant chunk of people are still going to vote in person, whether because they couldn’t get an absentee ballot, didn’t want one, or waited too long to apply. Both of these facts are true regardless of what the government does. So the key is to make both voting systems work. That means making sure everyone has the option to vote by mail if they want to, while also letting the public know it’s safe to show up to the polls if they need to. (It definitely does not mean dismissing voters’ health concerns as “laughable,” as Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick recently did.)

This points to one of the broader challenges of making policy during this pandemic. As our knowledge of the coronavirus advances, we’re continually forced to update our priors. Voting in person looked incredibly scary a month ago. Now we know that treating it like a terrifying gamble could do more harm than good. Overhyping the danger could make people unduly afraid to vote or to work the polls. That would turn predictions of electoral disaster into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Photographs: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Samuel Corum/Getty Images


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