Zeke Emanuel has a message for jittery Americans ahead of a momentous election: Voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic is about as safe as going to the grocery store.
In early July, Emanuel—the bioethicist and former Obama-administration health adviser—led a group of experts in developing a detailed and widely circulated chart that advised Americans about the relative health risk of more than two dozen common activities. Taking a jog or having an outdoor picnic is low risk for transmission of COVID-19, for example, while going grocery shopping is slightly higher, but still relatively safe. A visit to the doctor’s office or a museum fell into the medium category, while activities like partying indoors, traveling by plane, or going to church were the most risky.
Nowhere on the chart, however, was an activity especially important in 2020: voting. Its absence was conspicuous at a moment when the safety of this basic civic act has become the subject of a deeply polarizing national debate. During the early months of the pandemic, Democrats accused Republicans of forcing people to “risk their life” to vote in person as they pushed for the expansion of vote by mail against GOP opposition. President Donald Trump has insisted in-person voting is safe, even as he’s tried to undermine confidence in the election itself.
Even now, after the country has gradually and often fitfully reopened, some Democrats are reluctant to say definitively whether it’s safe to vote in person.
Yet with the start of in-person early voting just weeks away in some states, Emanuel is back with an update. Public-health officials have learned a lot about the transmission of COVID-19 since the spring, Emanuel told me, and the message around voting must change. “There’s a legitimate concern, but I do think we can make it much safer by following the precautions,” he said. “You don’t want people to be disenfranchised by the pandemic, and you should encourage people that it’s safe. It’s like shopping.”
In-person voting is no more risky than going to the grocery store, Emanuel argues, as long as certain safeguards are in place, the same measures many Americans have become accustomed to since the spring: Wear a mask and line up at least six feet apart. Voting locations should have plexiglass barriers separating poll workers from voters, as well as disinfectant to wipe down commonly used surfaces and objects. (In the risk-assessment chart—which Emanuel created with James P. Phillips, the chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University, and Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona—voting would also go in the same low-medium risk category as playing golf or tennis.)
Emanuel told me he hopes to correct perceptions about voting that, for many people, haven’t changed since early this spring. In April, state courts forced Wisconsin to go forward with an in-person election, siding with the GOP over the objections of the Democratic governor. Dozens of COVID-19 cases were linked to that election, and the Wisconsin experience helped galvanize a nationwide movement toward expanded voting by mail that Trump has ferociously opposed and denigrated. At the time, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, Ben Wikler, told me that the GOP’s insistence on in-person voting was a “moral atrocity.”
But the Wisconsin election happened just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public to wear a face covering, and at a time when protective equipment and sanitizer for poll workers was still in short supply. In the months since, millions of Americans have voted in person in primary elections across the country, and no major outbreaks have been linked to the polls, Emanuel told me.
Led by Trump, Republicans have already been aggressively reassuring their supporters that voting in person is safe. The question is whether Democrats will start to do the same.
Polls show a sharp divide between the parties on how people plan to cast their votes: A majority of Democrats want to vote by mail, while a majority of Republicans want to vote in person. Democrats have also swamped Republicans, to an unprecedented degree, in requests for absentee ballots in states that report such data by party, including North Carolina and Maine. (Despite Trump’s admonitions about voting by mail, he and other GOP officials have also been encouraging voters to request ballots.)
For many voters, the drive toward mail balloting has been complicated by fears about the Postal Service—whether Trump is trying to sabotage it, and whether new procedures put in place by the postmaster general will undercut its ability to handle a crush of ballots in the fall. Dakota Hall runs a group in Milwaukee called Leaders Igniting Transformation that is organizing a registration drive among young Black and Latino residents. A drop-off in turnout among that population across the city helped Trump win Wisconsin—and with it, the presidency—in 2016. “We’re hearing it on both ends,” Hall told me. “I’m afraid to vote in person. This virus can potentially be deadly to myself and to my family members.” And on the other end, the president’s campaign to undermine mail-in voting is clearly raising concerns about the method’s security: “People are regurgitating that as well,” Hall said.
“It’s definitely like a double-edged sword right now in terms of people not trusting the voting system,” Hall said. To increase safe-voting options in Milwaukee, city officials announced last week—following the NBA players’ strike led by the Milwaukee Bucks—that the Bucks’ Fiserv Forum would serve as an in-person early-voting site and that the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park would host drive-through voting this fall.
The fear of in-person voting is understandably pronounced among Black and Latino Americans because those two groups have contracted COVID-19 at higher rates than white people. But Black and Latino voters are also more reluctant than white voters to cast their ballots by mail, according to multiple recent surveys and focus groups. Part of that wariness is an attachment to the experience of voting in person, which is a cultural touchstone in places where “Souls to the Polls” events drive Black worshippers to early-voting sites after church services in late October and early November. There’s also the feeling of control that comes with physically putting your ballot in a scanning machine as opposed to dropping it in the mail, says Page Gardner, the founder of the Voter Participation Center, a nonpartisan group that has conducted research on attitudes about voting methods. “Seeing that your ballot is being recognized and counted is an important piece of control,” she told me. “Reassurance is very important, particularly among people of color, because they’ve had such real-life experiences of their votes being suppressed.”
Groups like Hall’s and Gardner’s are trying to educate voters both about mail balloting and the relative safety of in-person voting. The more people who vote by mail, the shorter the lines will be at early-voting sites and precincts on Election Day, which would further alleviate the COVID-19-related health risks. Organizations like More Than a Vote, headlined by LeBron James, are also spending money to recruit younger poll workers to prevent shortages among older workers, who are at greater risk of severe infections.
States, parties, and candidates need to reassure the public “in as many ways that they can” about the relative safety of in-person voting, Gardner told me. Her group is considering sending a mailing to tens of millions of people with a message like “Wash your hands, wear a mask, and vote.” But the effort is not as simple as it sounds. “Groups are leaning into it but they want to lean into it in a way—and this is an important dynamic—that’s not depressing, that’s not simultaneously making people nervous about voting,” Gardner said. “So understanding that balance is very, very important.”
Democrats are struggling to find that balance as well. Rather than assert directly that in-person voting is safe for most Americans, Democrats have generally focused on informing voters of their options for casting a ballot and urging them to “make a plan” to vote—a refrain repeated by many speakers during the Democratic National Convention. The language is rooted in research showing that “when people plan things out in advance, they’re much more likely to follow through,” Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has run Democratic-campaign committees in both the House and Senate, told me.
For the next few weeks, at least, Democrats say their message around voting is simple: Request absentee ballots and send them back immediately. “The real motivation is to try to get as many people as possible to vote early because of COVID,” former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a onetime Democratic Party chairman, told me. He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the vote could be cast by mail. “We don’t prefer you standing in line.”
The Biden campaign says it plans to spend part of its $280 million fall budget on an “unprecedented” voter-education campaign to inform people in key states how they can cast their ballot safely and securely. It also plans on tracking voters who request absentee ballots so it can remind them to send them back or inform them about early in-person voting options. But as November approaches, and concerns about Postal Service delays potentially mount, the messaging may have to shift toward in-person voting.
Both Emanuel—whose brother, Rahm, knows a thing or two about political messaging—and the Biden campaign have converged on the grocery store as a point of comparison, albeit in slightly different ways. Molly Ritner, the Biden campaign’s deputy states director, noted that during the pandemic, some people have continued to shop in person for their food, some have opted for curbside pickup, and others have groceries delivered to their door. “In a lot of ways, voting allows the same options depending on people’s comfort level and their personal situations,” she told me. “People have figured out what their comfort zone is.”
For now at least, the campaign seems to be holding back, uncomfortable with making an assurance about the safety of a fundamental act of citizenship that it cannot quite guarantee. So it’s leaving both the question, and the burden of answering it, on the voters themselves. "We are giving people options of how to vote,” Ritner told me, “and then letting them make the decision of what they think is safe.”