As voters went to the polls Tuesday across the country, they encountered an array of precautions meant to keep the presidential election from becoming a Covid-19 superspreader event.
Masks and hand sanitizer were ubiquitous, of course, as was grousing about masks. In New York, some polling places handed out individual pens for voting, while others cleaned off markers in between each use. In one Ohio county, each person was given a plastic glove to wear while handling their ballot. And in a number of states, people too afraid to get out of their cars and stand in a socially distanced line could vote curbside, as if they were picking up takeout.
Despite the safety measures, though, there were sporadic complaints of crowding, as well as worries that in some communities hard-hit by illness and joblessness, voting may not be “top of mind,” as a San Francisco activist put it.
STAT dispatched reporters to polling places in four states from coast to coast: New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and California. Here’s what they observed Tuesday morning and during early voting over this past weekend.
In Ohio, the worst part of voting ‘was the mask’
GRANGER, Ohio — In Medina County, Ohio, Patty Wcislo wore a white cloth mask as she emerged from the Granger township administration building at 9 a.m. Tuesday. A plastic glove handed out by poll workers was crumpled in her hand.
“I’m more concerned about the direction this country is going than I am about getting a bad case of the flu,” said Wcislo, who added that she cast her ballot for President Trump. “My husband voted earlier, and he said the worst part about it was the mask, because he doesn’t wear one.”
Sidewalks outside the polling location were lined with signs asking voters to use face coverings, though they weren’t mandatory, and keep their distance from others. Inside, a poll worker offered each voter a single glove to wear while filling out their ballots and hand sanitizer as they lined up a few feet apart.
No one waited more than a couple minutes between 9 and 10 a.m. Wcislo said the process took her only seven minutes. “It’s usually longer, but I think everybody went and voted early because of Covid and the whole thing,” she said.
As of Oct. 20, nearly a third of the county’s 130,000 registered voters had either voted early or requested mail-in ballots, according to county officials. Medina voters favored Trump by 25 percentage points in 2016, and Wcislo said she is hoping for the same outcome this year, although she is worried about the integrity of the election.
“I’m very concerned about the vote counting process,” she said. “I’m hoping we come out of this with such a high amount of Trump votes that we’re not going to have to worry about it.”
In neighboring Summit County, which includes the city of Akron, Caleb Habeck, 27, said he considered ordering an absentee ballot but opted to vote in person instead. He said election officials at the Akron-Summit County Public Library seemed to be taking every precaution. All poll workers wore masks, but several also used face shields and a clear plastic gown from neck to toe.
“I used some hand sanitizer before and after I went in, but they were wiping down the equipment really well, so it didn’t seem like I needed to do anything else,” said Habeck, a pediatrician. He said he turned out to vote for Biden because of the disrespect Trump has shown toward science during the pandemic.
“I don’t appreciate that he doesn’t always respect the viewpoint and expert opinions of the scientists,” he said. “That really has pushed me away from him a lot.”
Habeck was among a slow trickle of voters who visited the polling station at mid-morning. Poll workers said it was much busier between 6:30 and 9, when long lines spilled out the door. One worker, who did not give her name, said the county was strongly urging all voters to wear masks, but would not stop anyone from voting if they chose not to.
— Casey Ross
In L.A., ‘everything was disinfected as soon as I touched it’
LOS ANGELES — Despite more than half of the state’s 22 million registered voters having already mailed or returned their ballots, polling places were bracing for long lines, with many voters rising early to drop off ballots, vote directly from their cars, or vote in person at heavily sanitized polling places staffed with newly trained younger poll workers less vulnerable to Covid-19.
Many voted at some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, from the Hollywood Bowl and Magic Castle to Dodger Stadium, where voters clad in Mookie Betts jerseys and World Series champions T-shirts cheered after receiving free Milk Bar cookies from Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei. Calling itself “The Room Where it Happened,” the Pantages Theatre gave out limited-edition Hamilton “I Voted” stickers.
Voters this year also had the option of voting curbside if they were afraid to enter a polling place because of infection fears or didn’t want to wear a mask.
Those watching the polls said turnout seemed high. Trudy Josephson, a civic activist canvassing in Laguna Beach, said lists she was given showed roughly 80% of people in the area she targeted had already voted by Saturday. Those who hadn’t “said they’d soon be dropping their ballots off in a drop box or at a polling place,” she said.
Others were concerned the pandemic might dampen turnout, especially in neighborhoods that had been hard hit by the virus, like San Francisco’s Mission District, where 95% of people who tested positive for coronavirus this May were Latinx. Jon Jacobo, an activist and vice president of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, was concerned about the low turnout numbers he was seeing in his district relative to the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.
“If you look at the Mission District, voter turnout is at 43% in some places and in areas like Noe Valley, there are precincts at 70,” he said Monday. “Many people are so focused on economic survival right now. It doesn’t seem voting is top of mind.”
Jacobo, who previously served as a press secretary for Bernie Sanders, said the pandemic curtailed many of the voter registration activities that would have normally taken place earlier this year. “Usually, every year I run a voter registration drive,” he said. “This year we’re not doing that. We are completely wrapped up in Covid response — testing, food deliveries, rent vouchers.”
Many of those who did vote in person reported feeling safe in polling places. In California, masks were not required for voting, but many places offered masks to those who did not have them, as well as gloves and liberal doses of hand sanitizer.
“I haven’t felt as safe in an indoor space since the pandemic started,” said one voter, who cast a vote for Biden at a suburban Los Angeles polling place but did not give his name. “Everything was disinfected as soon as I touched it.”
Poll workers looked a lot more youthful this year, voters noted. Younger workers were recruited by election clerks this year because of health concerns for older poll volunteers, said Lisa Bryant, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Fresno. While there was plenty of staffing, Bryant said the inexperience of new poll workers could contribute to longer processing times and lines.
— Usha Lee McFarling
Crowds make some voters uncomfortable in Brooklyn
CORAM, N.Y. — A long line of voters wearing masks wrapped around Coram Elementary School on Long Island Tuesday morning. Ty Key and Chris Roberts had waited 2 1/2 hours to cast their ballots. Inside they found hand sanitizer spray, paper towels, and poll workers disinfecting voting booths and keeping people a safe distance from one another.
“They go in and they clean everything, as soon as you go to vote they wipe everything down,” said Key.
It was a similar scene Sunday during early voting at Brookhaven Town Hall where people waited upward of three hours to vote. As they entered, a poll worker pumped hand sanitizer on each person’s hands. Inside, workers wearing masks and some with face shields sat at tables without plastic partitions. Voters said there was ample room to safely move around.
“Sanitary-wise, they did an excellent job,” said Judy Pepenella, who said she felt safe bringing her 91-year-old mother with her to vote.
Even the markers voters used to fill out their ballots received careful attention, as workers cleaned them after each use. Meanwhile, at several polling places in Brooklyn over the weekend, voters were handed their own pen to vote. Labeled “Vote NYC,” it doubles as a stylus.
“Before I even finished doing the thing on the machine, there was a lady right behind me cleaning,” said Vinroy Webb, who voted at the Brooklyn Museum and kept his voting pen. “I’m very impressed by what’s going on.”
Voters at Brooklyn College were unhappy with the precautions, however. People waiting outside were socially distanced and there was a bright orange table near the front of the line with hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, and disinfectant wipes. But it was a different story after entering the building.
“Inside there were a lot of people milling about. Even the privacy booths were too close together,” said Isobela Modica, who voted with her husband, Joshua.
“They tried to direct us from one side to empty privacy booths on the other, and I just said, ‘I’m not comfortable going through that crowd,’” she recounted afterward, “because there were easily 25 people in the space between where we had to go.”
She said there were too many poll workers and they had let too many people inside at once. Peter Scheerer, a physician and public health professional who also voted at the college, shared her concern.
“It’s packed in there. It’s busier than I would be safe with,” said Scheerer. He was in and out within eight minutes, so he said he wasn’t as concerned for voters as he was for poll workers spending their shifts inside.
— Nicholas St. Fleur
With Covid-19 soaring, Wisconsin voters urged to wear masks
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — In a state that saw its average positivity rate for Covid-19 hit a record high on Monday, health was front and center for the Wisconsin Elections Commission as polls opened Tuesday.
Wisconsin’s seven-day average for positive Covid-19 tests is now at 30.1%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. More than 232,000 residents have tested positive across the state, and more than 2,000 people have died of Covid.
“Masks are required for poll workers and for observers. They’re also recommended unanimously by our bipartisan commission for voters,” said Meagan Wolfe, elections commission administrator, in her early-morning news conference. “But for voters, they’re not required, because you can’t add an additional qualification to the constitutional right to vote.”
But Wolfe urged voters to wear masks and said extra masks would be available at polling sites.
Hand sanitizer was plentiful inside polling places, and sites offered curbside voting as an alternative to voting inside.
With Plexiglas between poll workers and voters, every worker was wearing a mask at the West Allis City Hall polling location, just west of Milwaukee, according to an election observer.
Outside, more than 100 people huddled in small groups and spread out in a long line around the block. While not all of them were wearing masks, nearly all voters wore their masks once inside, said the observer, who was not allowed to give his name.
In the city of Milwaukee, which shattered its record for early voting, lines were much shorter at the Mary Ryan Boys and Girls Club polling site in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Just before 8 a.m., about 10 people waited.
Voters were masked up: “Every single one has on a mask,” said Luis, a volunteer who was handing out bottles of water and packaged snacks, as part of the national effort, Pizza to the Polls. He stood near a red, white, and blue food truck, sporting “Democracy is Delicious” across the side.
Not far away, voters at Hi-Mount Community School near Washington Park in Milwaukee faced no line and strode right in to cast their ballots.
In Waukesha County’s New Berlin, west of Milwaukee, about 40 voters lined up at the public library about a half-hour before polls opened. Most wore masks and shivered in the 40-degree air. A poll worker checked in with each of them outside to make sure they knew their ward. A police SUV sat idling near the entrance.
— Becky Lang