Protecting Public Health in the 2020 Elections

by Voting Rights Lab

July 6, 2020

Report Summary

​COVID-19 has affected the way we live and work—and inevitably, it will affect the way we vote this November as well. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the UCLA Voting Rights Project and the Voting Rights Lab will be co-releasing a report from medical experts, political scientists, and voting rights advocates entitled “Protecting Public Health in the 2020 Election,” which takes a public health look at how states can ensure safe elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This report reviews both existing medical literature on risk factors for COVID spread and political science research on congestion during voting, and then analyzes recent evidence of the public health impacts of 2020 primary elections to create policy recommendations for voting that are grounded in public health and political science data. 

The medical literature indicates that close proximity with others during large social gatherings are a risky environment for COVID-19 transmission. Poorly executed in-person voting that sees large lines or congestion at polling places, therefore, should be avoided. Political science research suggests that lines and congestion at in-person polling places can be mitigated by expanding the points of service for voting and reducing the transaction time for voting.

The report also explores the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and voting barriers in communities of color and highlights the importance of focusing on equity considerations when considering polling place congestion mitigation.

The report suggests that safe elections are possible if states increase absentee ballot access, spread out in-person voting opportunities, and educate voters about these changes. More specifically, states should:​

  • Increase absentee ballot access by allowing universal “no excuse” absentee voting and easing requirements for applying for an absentee ballot 
  • Ensure safe in-person voting opportunities by providing as many polling places as possible, extending early voting days and hours (including evening and weekend hours often utilized by voters of color), increasing the points of service at polling locations, reducing transaction time at polling locations, prioritizing in-person polling options where they are most needed (e.g. Native American reservations and communities with lower rates of absentee ballot usage), and ensuring full compliance with CDC best practices for public safety.
  • Educate voters about changes by providing clear, accessible information on changes to the voting process (in multiple languages and accessible to individuals with all levels of literacy) and sending information via a variety of communication channels at different intervals.

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