Toward Safer Elections During a Pandemic

Experts at Duke Science & Society panel look at the risks and paths forward

Many Americans are worried about the risks of holding elections during the pandemic. One of them is Harvard Professor of Medicine Dr. Anupam B. Jena.

Speaking on a panel of experts June 26 as part of Duke Science & Society’s Coronavirus Conversations series, Jena told attendees that he “would be very cautious” about in-person voting. 

“I would expect that with that large-scale exposure … we would see an increase in cases.”  He added that “we don't have enough facts” but by election day in November, there will be numerous large gatherings, including primaries, protests and presidential rallies—"natural experiments” from which we can learn more.

“What we can expect to happen in November … will depend on what [the data show] has happened until that point.”

The bottom line, Jena said: “There’s going to be some areas where voting in person is probably going to be very dangerous.”

Other panelists espressed additional concerns but also spoke to potential pathways to safer elections.

Martha Kropf,  a UNC-Charlotte professor and election expert, said “prominent political scientists and legal scholars are suggesting that we do more vote by mail.” But she added, “if states really want to do that they need to get moving on it. They really needed to get moving on [it] in March.”

Kropf said she is concerned there is not enough money to run safe in-person elections.  Much more than the $400 million appropriated in the federal CARES Act is needed, she said, to prepare for voting safely during the pandemic across the nation.

“I’m worried about … local election jurisdictions having enough funding to be able to buy adequate hand sanitizer, [or] gloves” or put other precautions in place, she said

Duke Law Professor Guy-Uriel Charles pointed to the recent Kentucky primary as an example of an election “that by all accounts went pretty well,” which he attributes to Kentucky politicians’ ability to move beyond partisanship and work on all fronts. “They did early voting. They did vote by mail. They had a very aggressive vote by mail campaign.  It shows that this can be done and it can be done in November.”

All panelists voiced concern about the need to recruit poll workers to replace the retirees who typically volunteer but who are at greater risk for COVID-19.  “So many of … the folks who are able to volunteer and participate, most of them are older individuals and also are susceptible to this virus in [a] particularly vulnerable way,” Charles said.

Kropf said, “I would suggest that anyone who can volunteer to be a poll worker because I think that’s where we’re seeing the most significant issues.” She said her students are planning to volunteer with local election boards helping with mail-in ballots. “I have a feeling that is going to be significant.”

The event was moderated by Nita Farahany, Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law and director of Duke Science & Society.

For more information on this topic, download the Duke SciPol.org policy brief.