Voting in an uncertain age: staying safe and feeling counted

October 29, 2020

Like all things 2020, in-person voting will be different this year. Never before have U.S. voters navigated a pandemic and the potentially disruptive forces of a heated and divided political climate. While early and mail-in voting have reached unprecedented levels, many will show up at polling locations to cast ballots in the traditional way on Election Day or in the days leading up to it in places that offer early in-person voting. Polling places have expanded to include sports arenas like the Galen Center at USC and other first-time voting centers like the Soto 1 building on the Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights. Both are open for voters from Friday, Oct. 30 through Election Day. USC experts can talk about the best ways to protect your health, safety and security when voting in person.

Contact: Ron Mackovich, or (213) 740-2215

Reducing health risks at the polls

“First, it’s important to realize that every time you leave your home, you have reconciled yourself to the fact you are taking some risk, especially as we have recently seen an upward trend in COVID-19 cases across much of the country. For this reason, if you or someone you live with is at greater risk of severe complications from COVID-19, consider mailing in your vote.

“However, if you decide to drop off a ballot or vote in person, you need to promise yourself you will be disciplined about taking all known precautious to mitigate this risk. Here are your tools: 1) a three-layered face mask that fits snugly around your nose and mouth; 2) glasses or preferably a face shield in addition to the mask because new research is showing we can contract the coronavirus through our eyes; 3) hand sanitizer to use after touching any common surfaces or objects; and 4) your own pen, as necessary.

“You will also want to try to stay outdoors as much as possible because your risk of catching the coronavirus is 19 times lower when you are outside. Make sure to practice physical distancing and try to time your voting when the polls in your community are typically less crowded. There is no one magic bullet for protecting yourself against COVID-19 — it is a combination of several imperfect measures that, together, offer you enough protection so you can stay safe while performing your civic duty.”

Neha Nanda, MD, is the medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC.

Contact: Alison Rainey, or (626) 390-1640


What to do if you feel intimidated or see interference

If an alleged ‘poll watcher’ tries to impede someone at the voting booth:

• Tell him/her to kindly step out of the way.
• Take his/her picture with a cell phone.
• Call the FBI.

FBI Civil Rights Division staff will be available by phone to receive complaints related to ballot access at (202) 307-2767 or toll-free at (800) 253-3931.

Erroll Southers is director of the Safe Communities Institute at the USC Price School of Public Policy.



Tracking participation in real time

“Knowing which communities have high or low voter participation leading up to the election can be critical to getting out the vote, especially in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Digital tools that help us understand where turnout is low or high can help communities plan last-minute outreach to voters, while making the entire process more transparent.”

Mindy Romero, Ph.D., is director of Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The center has developed two web-based applications for the 2020 election to help election officials and voting advocates plan election-related decision-making and outreach.



Higher turnout, more in-person voting

“Voters are by and large aware that voting this year isn’t going to be the way that it normally is.

“When we ask people how they are going to vote, we get a much higher percentage than usual who say they are going to vote by mail. We also see large partisan divisions, with Republicans far likelier than Democrats to say they will vote in person and on election day rather than early. It’s going to be higher overall. The pandemic and its effect on voting methods injects uncertainty into projections of turnout. But I don’t have any strong reason yet to worry that it will have profound effects unless the election winds up being a good deal closer than polls currently suggest.”

Morris Levy is an assistant professor of political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.



Extra caution for older adults

Covid-19 presents new challenges for those planning to vote in-person, particularly for at-risk older adults. But we can take measures to lower our risk while at the polls:

  • Keep your distance. Many polling places have placed markers where people should stand while waiting and voting.
  • Wear a mask. This is especially important while you are inside and particularly if you are waiting indoors for a period of time.
  • Wash your hands. After voting use hand sanitizer and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

Jennifer Ailshire is an assistant a professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.