Voting is going to look a lot different in the 2020 election

Watch the Full Coronavirus Conversation from June 26th

Millions of Americans are worried about the risks of holding elections during the pandemic. As part of Duke Science & Society’s Coronavirus Conversations series, on June 26th Dr. Nita Farahany convened a panel of experts to discuss those concerns—and possible solutions.

Harvard Professor of Medicine Dr. Anupam B. 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.” At the same time, “we don’t have enough facts.” By November, Dr. Jena notes, we will have had “situations where large gatherings have occurred,” 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.” Still, says Dr. Jena, “there’s going to be some areas where voting in person is probably going to be very dangerous.”

“What we can expect to happen in November will depend on what has happened until that point… there’s going to be some areas where voting in person is probably going to be very dangerous.”

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

Dr. Kropf also has concerns that there is not enough money to run safe elections in-person. Much more than the $400m appropriated in the CARES Act is needed, Dr. Kropf points out, to prepare for voting safely during the pandemic. “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.

Duke Law Professor Guy-Uriel Charles points 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 the panelists voiced concern about the need to recruit poll workers to replace the retirees who typically volunteer. Professor Charles noted that “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.” Dr. Kropf says “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.” Dr. Kropf and 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.”

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