By Anastasia Bekker
Elm Staff Writer
This year, voters are facing new risks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Voting is important, but so is safety. Can we have both?
The short answer is yes. More than ever, citizens are requesting mail-in ballots. According to the Pew Research Center, a total of 50.3% of absentee and mail-in votes were cast during the 2020 United States primary elections, surpassing the total numbers of both the 2016 and 2018 general elections.
Due to relaxed eligibility rules for mail-in voting, a record number of early votes have been mailed this year. Each state has its own website for citizens to request mail-in or absentee ballots, where the deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots are available.
Although mail-in voting certainly has benefits during COVID-19, such as avoiding large groups of people at polling locations, there are some difficulties. If ballot instructions are not followed exactly, the vote will not be counted.
Mail-in ballots get rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots because of user error. Common mistakes include not signing in the proper places, using the wrong return envelope, and missing the deadline.
“People get hung up because they didn’t realize that the envelope that the ballot came in is the one that you have to return to them,” Myrna Pérez, director of Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, told Vox on Sept. 22. “A lot of people forget to sign it.”
Since each state has different instructions for their mail-in ballot, it’s crucial to read the ballot carefully before filling it out. Some states also have eligibility requirements for mail-in voting. In Oklahoma and Virginia, for example, as Pérez explains, voters must cite a state-approved reason explaining why they can’t vote in person.
After filling out a mail-in ballot, drop it off at the post office as soon as possible so as not to miss the deadline. If you’re uncertain about your state’s voting deadlines, Vote.org has a comprehensive list of mail-in deadlines for each state. According toPérez, any states also allow their voters to track the status of their mail-in ballot online so citizens can see when their vote has been counted.
If you are unable to fill out a mail-in ballot or have missed the deadline for requesting one, you can still vote in person at the polls, and do so safely.
“There’s a legitimate concern, but I do think we can make it much safer by following the precautions,” Zeke Emmanuel, a health advisor for former President Barack Obama’s administration, told The Atlantic about in-person voting on Sept. 8. “You don’t want people to be disenfranchised by the pandemic, and you should encourage people that it’s safe. It’s like shopping.”
If voters follow the safety regulations at the polls, such as wearing masks and keeping a six-foot distance between themselves and other voters or poll workers, the risk of voting is no greater than that of a trip to the grocery store.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided a list of these safety regulations, suggesting that poll sites have hand-sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and reinforced handwashing rules for poll workers. Poll workers and voters alike will be urged to wear masks or face shields and remain a safe six-foot distance from one another.
Emmanuel also suggests that polling sites should have plexiglass barriers between voters and poll workers, and frequently clean all surfaces with disinfectant.
To keep the amount of people in the polling location at one time to a minimum, clear directions and signs will be posted to make voting a quick process and prevent slow foot traffic, and voters are advised not to bring their children. Despite these efforts, voters should prepare for lines and waiting periods.
“There are going to be some glitches,” Pérez told National Public Radio on Oct. 15. “There are going to be some lines.But your right to vote is so important, and the fact of you voting is really, really important. So we don’t want people to be deterred.”
If you plan to vote in person, you can find your polling location by looking at the “Polling Place Locator” page on Vote.org. Be sure to locate your specific site and plan the route before election day on Tuesday.
Those who feel safe doing so can also help by signing up as a poll worker. There is expected to be a shortage of poll workers this year— in the past, many poll workers were older individuals who are now at a higher risk for COVID-19.
If you’re interested in working at the polls, contact your local government directly or use a recruitment site such as PowerthePolls.org.
If you choose not to work directly at the polls, there are still ways to help other voters submit their ballots.
“Figure out, like, who might need a ride. Figure out who might need childcare. Figure out who might need you to check in to make sure that, you know, their dog doesn’t need to get walked and the like,” Pérez said in the NPR interview. “Just — if you’ve got some flexibility in your schedule and want to contribute on Election Day, just look in your own networks.”
At Washington College, the Student Government Association and Interim Provost and Dean of WC Dr. Michael Harvey are working together to encourage students to vote, and reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if they have questions about the process.
“Classes are in session on Tuesday, Nov. 3,” the SGA and Dr. Harvey, said in an Oct. 15 campus-wide email. “So, if you plan to vote in person or work the polls on Election Day, please connect with your professors ahead of time to excuse yourself from class and organize a plan to make up missed work.”
Just like any other year, voters must prepare for this election, whether that means requesting a mail-in ballot, hiring a babysitter, or e-mailing your professor.
Although voters face a new challenge this election, there arestill an abundance of online and community-based resources to help everyone cast their ballot. If you have any questions about any step of the voting process, whether in-person or through mail, don’t hesitate to use these options.
Featured Photo caption: With Election Day less than two weeks away, eligible voters are looking for a secure and safe plan as to how to cast their ballots this November. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Tertipes.