It’s getting dark as you rush to the polls after work on election day, November 3rd. It starts to drizzle as you hunker down at the end of the line that stretches around the block. You overhear people saying two poll workers called out sick with COVID-19 symptoms, causing the backup. You wonder if you will be exposed, thus putting your own as well as your family’s health at risk.
Here in Wisconsin, we don’t need to imagine this. We’ve already seen it with our own eyes. Crowded in-person voting in the Wisconsin primaries led to many new cases of COVID-19. According to the CDC, we were fortunate to avoid a statewide case surge, in no small part because of the 15-fold increase in absentee voting. As doctors, we are concerned and want to make sure our state’s voters stay safe during an even higher-turnout general election.
Just as doctors are expected to give evidence-based recommendations on how to prevent injuries and illness by wearing seatbelts and eating healthy, we have a duty to advise you on how to stay safe while exercising your right to vote. So we want to send a clear message that voting in person during a pandemic can be dangerous and even deadly. The current surges of cases on Wisconsin college campuses makes clear that crowds of asymptomatic, apparently healthy people can spread COVID-19 while asymptomatic. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on, voting the way we always have is just not safe during this pandemic. It would be like going on a road trip during a blizzard.
So what do we prescribe? Vote from the safety of your own home.
Request a vote-by-mail ballot, even if you think you’ll want to vote in person. The pandemic is unpredictable. We’ve seen COVID-19 hotspots flare up across the country. Voting from home protects you; it also protects your entire community. By decreasing crowds at the polls, you protect those who must vote in person and poll workers, particularly those at increased risk of adverse health effects due to underlying medical conditions.
Don’t let concerns about the security of absentee ballots serve as a hindrance to voting from home. Madison voters who have concerns about their ballots being received on time can make use of the many newly established secure ballot drop-off sites. Poll workers in protective equipment – including many physicians – will be present across the city to accept your ballot and serve as your witness if needed.
Be aware that even if you are young and healthy, you are still at risk. We are just starting to learn about long-haulers who suffer for months with neurologic issues and worse. We have seen our own patients require 24/7 care due to persistent shortness of breath, fatigue, or leg weakness. CT scans often show lung damage, even in asymptomatic people. Elite athletes have been forced off the field by serious heart inflammation. We don’t yet know how long the damages will last.
You may still need or choose to vote in-person. Stay safe with these practices: vote before election day if possible, wear a mask, maintain physical distancing, and practice hand hygiene. Wisconsin election officials should do their part by supporting these practices and designing polling places and procedures that minimize crowding and lines.
Let Wisconsin avoid another surge in COVID cases. Our prescription for healthy voting is this: Vote from home; request a vote-by-mail ballot and return it early. If you do vote in-person: vote early and follow safe practices. If voters across all 72 counties each do their part, you won’t have to choose between your health and your vote in 2020.