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Participating in a Pandemic: Ensuring Safe Voting

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Watch: Public Health and Elections Experts Discuss Safest Possible Voting During a Pandemic

Election and public health experts from the University of Maryland joined with others from the BIG10 public policy school network on October 5 for a panel discussion on principles for conducting safe elections during a pandemic. The event, hosted by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, was led by election administration expert, SPP professor of the practice, director of the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise David Mussington PhD CISSP. The panel also included:

  • Jodi Benenson PhD, assistant professor, University of Nebraska Omaha School of Public Administration 
  • Robert Sprinkle, MD PhD associate professor, University of Maryland School of Public Policy
  • Cynthia Baur PhD, professor, Behavioral and Community Health, endowed professor and director of the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy at the University of Maryland School of Public Health

“Going into this calendar year, my expectation was that cyber risks were going to be what we were most concerned with. Well, of course, we all know what happened, or what has happened,” Mussington said. “Cyber risks had receded up until relatively recently, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has upended not only society and our economy, but our election process as well.” 

The panelists discussed a suggested checklist of safe practices for consideration by local election administrators. This checklist, “Some Principles for Safe In-Person Voting,” presents best practices in a number of key areas involved in in-person voting including: poll worker recruitment and exclusions, pre-testing of volunteers, provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), rigorous sanitation protocols and transparency of information.

Some Principles for Safe In-Person Voting

Recruiting and exclusions. 

No call for young-and-healthy poll workers should be issued without explicit exclusion of volunteers with risk-raising conditions: immunosuppression, overweight, hypertension, diabetes or pre-diabetes, male gender with a severely affected male sibling, and personal history of COVID-19 with last symptom less than 10 days before start of training.

Pre-testing of volunteers. 

PCR testing should be reported negative in advance of comprehensive training.  Rapid antigen testing should be added prior to any service.

Provision of clinical-quality personal-protective equipment (PPE) with practice in its use. 

PPE should be acquired in advance of poll-worker training, since supplies may be restricted.  PPE use should start at the beginning of training and should persist throughout training for two reasons: to decrease the risk of transmission among volunteers (because initial tests may be negative in recently infected persons) and to adjust to the awkwardness of personal protection prior to service.


Any and all facilities where in-person voting takes place should commit to following current sanitization protocols.  Heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems should be fitted with HEPA filtration and other upgrades if feasible.  Note that aerosol transmission is real, and has been real from the beginning; aerosols inside closed spaces may stay suspended in air for long periods, so ventilation must be maximized.  (Note: Many sanitization procedures commonly seen early in the pandemic made less sense than supposed; for example, an early emphasis on the spraying of surfaces was often excessive.  However, public expectations may argue for their continuation, though not to the exclusion of measures better supported by evidence.)


With misinformation and disinformation gushing from online and fringe-media outlets, risk messaging to volunteers, as well as to the voting public and vulnerable communities, must be forthright, frequent, and free of partisan taint.

While the checklist focused on communicating risk guidance for in-person voting related to COVID-19, the panel also addressed the importance of credible and effective communication of all voting alternatives to ensure trust and confidence in the system. In an “infodemic” environment, where there is too much information overall and too little credible information about electoral participation, the panel emphasized the importance of trusted local leaders.  

“Whoever are the leaders on the community level who are those trusted sources, [we need to focus]  on making sure they have accurate information, and that people feel like they can go to them,” said Baur.

While American elections are organized and run by the states, local governments play important leadership and election administration roles. Effective election administration requires the active engagement of the entire local community including faith-based, business and education leaders, especially to restore confidence if events don’t go as planned. For the Nation, community level precautions are the best means for minimizing risks as much as possible.

“This election is going to be different from any other election in our history in ways that we do not yet know,” said Benenson. “We really need to get creative in some ways, but also use what we do know can work effectively in terms of making sure we are providing access to engagement in our democratic system.”

The panel on safe election administration was the first of three pre-election panels on safe, fair and full election participation hosted by SPP  in partnership with the BIG10 public policy school network.The third and final panel in the series, Empowering Voters: An Accessible and Full Ballot Box, will be held on October 19.


View Panel 2: Trusting the Results: Delivering a Fair Election

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