Starting Oct. 19, the 700,000 citizens who call Pinellas County home can begin voting in-person for president, members of Congress and other elected positions. As physicians with expertise in immunology and infectious diseases, we believe voting in-person can be done safely during the pandemic.
We applaud the steps our elections administrators have taken to reduce risk as they prepare for an extremely high turnout election, but there is another important safety precaution Pinellas can and should take: provide more early in-person voting locations, beyond the five that Pinellas County currently offers.
The risks are real. Since Pinellas confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19 on March 11, 22,000 of our neighbors have been sickened and more than 700 people have lost their lives. COVID-19 continues to spread in Pinellas, with a positive rate of around 9 percent. This is higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention benchmark for safe reopening, which is 5 percent or lower. Clearly, we must look at every opportunity to further reduce disease spread in Pinellas so we can truly begin to turn the corner and suppress infection rates.
Expanding the number of locations where voters can cast their vote early is one important step.
Enclosed areas with inadequate ventilation and which can attract crowds of people, such as many polling sites, are vulnerable for COVID-19 to spread.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 can move from person to person easily, transported on microscopic droplets when people cough, talk and even just breathe. Growing scientific evidence indicate the virus is also airborne, suspended in the air as droplets.
At polling sites, this means keeping each individual at least six feet apart in a space large enough to allow air to move and circulate vigorously, and with sufficient resources to make sure the voting process remains safe and convenient. Handwashing and sanitizer stations must be placed where voters and poll workers can clean their hands easily and often. Voters and poll workers must be encouraged to wear masks. High-touch areas must be cleaned regularly.
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Common-use items such as pens and clipboards must be sanitized or discarded after each use. And to ensure voting isn’t just safe but accessible, places where people can cast their ballots in person should be spaced no more than a few miles from each other so distance and transportation don’t become barriers to the basic expression of American citizenship.
What that looks like should be determined quickly, in time for the start of early voting. What’s clear, however, is that there are only five early-voting sites scattered across a county that’s 680 square miles in area isn’t enough.
About 78,000 people in Pinellas County voted early in-person in 2016, and many election administrators anticipate and are preparing for a higher turnout this November. The county’s busiest early-voting site in 2016 was the Election Service Center in Largo, which averaged about 1,500 people each day. With early voting sites open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., about 125 people voted per hour at the that center. That’s a lot of people in one space and may not suffice for safe social distancing.
Spacing more voters across more locations can lead to fewer crowds and shorter lines. To achieve this, other counties in Florida are providing significantly more places for people to cast their votes early. Duval County has slightly fewer voters than Pinellas, yet is providing 19 early-voting sites. Voters in Pasco, which has about half as many voters as Pinellas, can choose from 14 locations to cast their ballots early.
For many people, in-person voting may be their only option and we must not leave them behind.
Voters who are less likely to have a permanent address where absentee ballots can be mailed tend to vote in person. For voters who need help reading their ballots, voting in person is a way to participate in our democracy and make their voices heard. Offering more early voting locations also makes voting easier and more equitable for low-income workers with limited time, limited transportation, and no child care.
Pinellas can avert what happened in Georgia’s June primary elections, when thousands of people waited in line for hours and thousands more were likely disenfranchised when Georgia closed 214 polling locations that served mostly Black communities. Or what happened in Wisconsin in its April primary, when a partisan Supreme Court blocked a request to delay the vote and created long lines during a pandemic. At least 52 Wisconsin voters and poll workers, and likely many more, were infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Election administrators have been more vocal than ever before, encouraging voters not to wait until the last minute to cast their ballot. Early voting affords our community the opportunity to cast a ballot in-person, alleviates Election Day burden by allowing election administrators to process more ballots before election day, and allows a greater share of the votes to be released in the first wave of results on election night, which typically include early voting ballots and those mail ballots received ahead of the election. To do so effectively, we need more early voting sites for the size and diversity of our community, and the square footage required to house ample voting equipment and resources that a presidential election requires, in a socially-distant manner.
For many, voting has never been a foregone conclusion. Poll taxes, literacy tests and voter ID restrictions have sought to suppress — and often succeeded in suppressing — voter participation. Erosions to the 1965 Voting Rights Act continue to prevent whole communities, mostly people of color, from practicing their right to vote as Americans. Now, a deadly global pandemic threatens the full and free exercise of our democracy.
Let’s support our election administrators by voting before Election Day. By providing more places to vote early, Pinellas County’s election officials can help all citizens exercise their right to vote safely and securely.
Dr. Mona Mangat is an immunology and allergy specialist. Dr. David M. Berman is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist. Both doctors live in St. Petersburg and are members of the Committee to Protect Medicare.