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OPINION

Long lines to vote are deadly in a pandemic

By FAYE FLAM | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: August 5, 2020

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In this pandemic-tainted election year, long lines at the polls have the potential to be catastrophic. The kinds of interventions used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in stores are unlikely to be helpful at polling places if people still have to wait hours to vote.

The latest studies showing how the coronavirus is transmitted put the blame on crowded, indoor environments, says Erin Bromage, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who’s been tracking the science of the pandemic’s spread. If anyone were to catch COVID-19 from voting in November, it would most likely be picked up from waiting in a long line, indoors, with many other people.

While distance from other people matters, so does the amount of time spent in their vicinity. Asking people to stand 6 feet apart won’t help much if the wait to vote is a long one. Briefly passing someone else at a polling place is unlikely to transmit the virus, but standing in a crowded room for hours is a significant risk.

There’s no way the current voting infrastructure can accommodate this pandemic, says Rebecca Mercuri, a founder of the company Notable Software and an expert on voting security. But the solution is simple: Rely on paper ballots that can be mailed in or filled out at home and delivered to designated drop-off spots.

Despite President Donald Trump’s fearmongering about mail-in ballot fraud, she says, paper ballots are less prone to tampering and malfunction than voting machines. And absentee voting and mail-in voting are the same thing, despite the president’s claims that the former is fine while the latter is vulnerable to abuse. She says the notion that absentee voting can’t be made secure is a conspiracy theory.

That doesn’t mean the system shouldn’t be made more secure. States need to work fast to ensure that paper ballots are secure and easy to obtain, fill out, and mail in or drop off.

Mercuri has long argued that machines with no paper trail can be hacked or malfunction, and that absentee forms are actually a more secure way to vote. But instead of relying on the mail, she finds out where she can turn her ballot in herself — so she’s sure it will be counted. With the pandemic, we might need more drop-off sites for these ballots, and a longer window of time for voters to submit them. We’ll also need videos and public service announcements explaining how to vote by mail, because some absentee ballots involve a complicated series of envelopes, seals and stickers to ensure nobody votes more than once, and these are not all user-friendly.

Polling places can stay open for a degree of normal, in-person voting on Election Day, as long as some creative thinking goes into avoiding indoor crowding and lines. Mask-wearing is not going to solve all the problems on its own. Masks do reduce risk, but all the same, as Bromage says, “having a snaking line through a gymnasium is a terrible idea.” Setting up outdoor tents would help prevent transmission, along with asking people to stay apart and wear masks. Polling places should also let people hand in their ballots quickly, rather than making them wait for each form to be scanned.

It will help alleviate the strain on polling places, though, if many people can vote by mail. Plus, there are lots of people who shouldn’t be going to their polling place at all, and not just because they’re older or immunocompromised. Bromage points out that many thousands of people are likely to be under quarantine on Election Day — right now, there are around 60,000 new cases a day, but provided they fall to, say, 50,000 and people observe a 14-day quarantine period, that’s 700,000 people who should not be going out to vote but who are entitled to have their votes counted. And some people will be too sick with COVID to leave the house.

Which is all the more reason for every state to make paper ballots easy to get. In some states, Mercuri says, absentee voting is becoming the norm, while in others, people need a reason to obtain an absentee ballot. By now, it’s safe to say the pandemic should give us all an automatic and legitimate reason to vote remotely.

What officials should be doing now is walking people through the steps of absentee or mail-in voting — not drumming up fears of fraud that will weaken the election’s legitimacy, or insisting on in-person voting that will extend the pandemic and cost more lives.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.