Election Season Meets Novel Virus: Let's Empower, Not Alarm

How can we constructively manage risk of community spread of a novel virus, while making voters feel empowered to turnout and vote?

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NYDLC's bread and butter is pushing back against legal and political maneuvers that may suppress voters. The spectre of community infection of a novel virus (COVID-19), however, presents a natural challenge for voters, so it deserves special consideration and careful preparation. An evidence-based understanding of how to prepare for and handle potential community disease-spread concerns throughout the campaign season will be crucial to safeguarding voter turnout this cycle.

Here is the good news: per the Center for Disease Control (CDC), common sense practices such as good hand hygiene, wiping down surfaces, and being mindful of touching one's face frequently (flu-like viruses often enter through the soft tissues in the nose, mouth, and eyes) are our best collective defense against widespread communication of COVID-19, as well as similar flu-like pathogens.

So, our challenge is twofold: how to empower voters to come to the polls prepared and without fear, while also making sure polling place staff successfully merge the electoral and technical best practices of their county Board of Elections and election equipment vendors, with common sense hand and surface hygiene per recommendations of the CDC.

In past virus scares, polling place solutions have been far from perfect. During the H1N1 scare for instance, polling places in Virginia were given single use q-tips and coffee straws to select options on touch screens. This is not an optimal solution, and, moreover, conflicts with instructions issued by such e-pollbook vendors such as KnowInk, who stress in their training use of their proprietary stylus to operate the poll pad.

First and foremost, poll workers and voters should take common sense measures, such as washing hands and sanitizing surfaces frequently. All poll workers should consult the CDC issued guidelines and the EPA list of commercial products that are effective against Covid-19. Polling places should be well stocked with sanitary products, and restroom information should be conspicuously posted, with hand washing encouraged (an effective hand-washing regimen includes taking at least 20 seconds to wash hands with generous use of soap/lather, and drying thoroughly with a clean towel). 

Sites using E-poll books should review their e-poll book training and make sure to use styluses. Using fingers is highly discouraged already, and prevention of community infection should provide an additional motivation for voters and poll workers to avoid use of their fingers to operate the poll book tablet. Styluses are, after all, easy to clean and can be used with gloves. Taking such precautions will help minimize the potential for spreading viruses while assuring voters that polling sites are safe and sanitary.

The DNC is also working hard to ensure that voters have a safe and sanitary voting experience. As DNC spokesperson Maya Hixon says, “Our No. 1 concern is to ensure all eligible voters are able to make their voices heard without jeopardizing anyone’s health and safety... We will continue to closely monitor as the situation develops.”

Unfortunately, the threat of a pandemic can lower voter participation and skew voter preferences due to its uneven demographic effects. A recent election an Iran saw a massive decrease in voter turnout related to Coronavirus fears, for example.

So, while the need for preparedness cannot be understated, as diligent guardians of democracy, it's important to keep our perspective and our remarks constructive, rather than alarmist.

The best practices for managing disease spread in general are the best practices for election day and the voting site; it's just a matter of diligence and having the right information.

NYDLC is also interested in gathering info on additional measures states are taking to prepare sites and assure voters. If you have would like to be a part of the conversation, please reach out to [email protected]. Put "Prepardeness" in the subject line.

  • Liza Abraham
    published this page in News 2020-03-05 19:45:43 -0500