Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent, the introduction of cuts to the United States Postal Service, during a pandemic election expected to shatter records for mail-in voting, is a disturbing threat to American democracy. There is still some debate over whether the service changes imposed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump megadonor, are deliberate electoral sabotage or merely part of a long-running conservative project to hobble and then privatize the USPS. Either way, the worst-case consequences are the same: a nightmare scenario in which thousands or millions of Americans who lawfully vote by mail—and are overwhelmingly registered Democrats—are nonetheless disenfranchised.
The media, congressional Democrats, and state election officials from both parties are rightly sounding the alarm about the looming disaster. Nancy Pelosi has called the House back from recess to vote on a bill that would keep the USPS from reducing service through the end of the year, though it could easily die in the Republican-controlled Senate. The good news is that individual voters have another, simpler solution at hand. It’s called the polling place.
Casting a ballot in person, it turns out, isn’t so dangerous after all. Early in the pandemic, this might have seemed a crazy thing to suggest. The Wisconsin primary, back in March, was widely described in apocalyptic tones. The New York Times called it “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” After state Democrats fought unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for mailing back absentee ballots, the ensuing photos of long lines at Milwaukee polling places seemed to presage an explosion of Covid-19 cases.
But the bomb never blew. As I observed in May, there was no noticeable rise in coronavirus cases thanks to the Wisconsin primary. A follow-up study by researchers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” In fact, case numbers in Milwaukee were lower in the weeks after the election than in the weeks before it. There are caveats: In-person turnout was low overall thanks to broad use of mail-in ballots, and we don’t know how coronavirus prevalence in March will compare with November. Still, it’s telling that there have been no credible reports of virus spikes attributable to any other election this year, even though ill-considered polling place closures have led to further instances of Milwaukee-style overcrowding.
Why might voting be safer than expected? We now know that the coronavirus spreads mostly when people are in sustained indoor contact—settings like a restaurant, a bar, or a shared home or office. The risk of transmission in fleeting encounters, by contrast, is small. Outdoors, it is vanishingly so. Even the massive protests following the killing of George Floyd, which even sympathizers feared would seed outbreaks, did not, according to several large studies. The pandemic is really an indoor problem. Even the defining image of the danger of voting during a pandemic—lines around the block—serves to illustrate why there’s little to fear. For most people, standing in a spaced-out line, outdoors, while wearing masks, entails at most a paltry risk.
“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason I can see why that’d not be the case,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent National Geographic event. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.” Likewise, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice advises, “In-person voting can be conducted safely if jurisdictions take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to voters and election workers.”
While funding is an ever-present issue, election administrators around the country from both parties have been learning how to run socially distanced elections since March. The key is to protect poll workers and to keep everyone else outside until it’s their turn to vote. When I voted in the Washington, DC, primary in June, I was annoyed to have to wait in line outside for an hour, thanks to the city foolishly shutting down most of its polling locations. (Other people waited as long as four hours. The city learned from its mistake and plans to have more polling sites in November.) Still, while the wait was inconvenient, I didn’t feel unsafe. Outside, people wore masks and kept their distance. Once I got inside, I was one of a couple dozen people spread around a large gymnasium. Poll workers had masks and plastic face shields. Was it perfect? Of course not. No activity that requires leaving your house is truly zero risk. But if you’ve been to a supermarket, a barbershop, an airport, a car dealership—or, for that matter, waited in line to get a Covid test—then it’s likely that you’ve already taken a bigger risk than you would by voting in person. That’s especially true if you have the option to vote early (you can find out here), or if you live in a place offering outdoor or curbside voting.
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For whatever reason, this reality has yet to sink in. Even New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, one of the few voices to make the case for in-person voting, frames it as a necessary sacrifice: “The pandemic makes that a risk,” he concludes, “but it’s a risk many of us may have to take.” The truth is that it’s a minor risk. When it comes to voting, however, the national debate seems to be stuck in March, when it was fair to wonder whether passing a stranger on the sidewalk could lead to a trip to the ICU. As a result, leading Democrats and voting rights advocates are stuck doubling and tripling down on the assurance that voting by mail is “safe and secure.” They understandably seek to counter Trump’s repeated, baseless claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. But if the goal is to avoid disenfranchisement, these leaders would be better off reminding voters that going to the polls is safe and secure, too.
To be clear, even the low risk of voting in person is too much to ask of the millions of Americans whose age or medical history makes them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. If you don’t fit into that category, however, then voting in person has a double benefit: It increases the chances that your vote will count, while at the same time conserving the diminished resources of the Postal Service for everyone else. Think of it like N95 masks: It would be great for everyone to have them, but since the system isn’t equipped to provide that, it’s best to leave them for those with the most need. As the election law expert Rick Hasen noted on Twitter, the idea is to “flatten the absentee ballot curve” to prevent a glut of election mail from overwhelming the beleaguered postal service in the days leading up to November 3. Hasen’s point was that people should request and return their ballots as soon as possible, but another way to flatten that curve is simply to not bother requesting a mail-in ballot if you don’t need one. (If you live in a place that allows you to hand-return an absentee ballot to a secure dropbox, that’s another great option.)
If you care about American democracy, whatever your partisan affiliation, you should be horrified that postal service cuts could keep us from having a fair election. These changes endanger more than just the vote—think of all the people who rely on the mail for their medication or paycheck—and should be fought with vigor. But for the most part, and based on what we know right now, it’s safe to vote in person.
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