Hey there, listen, was here. If you were wondering if we would have weekend podcasts in the final days leading up to Election Day, the answer is yes. Today's episode comes from our colleagues at podcast 19, which is five Thirty Eight's podcast covering the science surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. And in this episode, they look specifically at what states have done to make sure that people can vote safely during the pandemic and what the science says about all the precautions that we've taken.
So give it a listen and also make sure to subscribe to podcast 19. That's podcast hyphen 19. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. All right. Here it is.
I'm Anna Rothschild, and you're listening to a special 20/20 election edition of podcast 19 from 538.
We're just a few days away from the covid Refik Crazy Town 2020 election.
I couldn't have said it better myself. That was our senior science reporter, Maggie Curth. covid has reshaped voting this election cycle, and we'll chat with Maggie a bit later about how to stay safe while voting in person. But first, I wanted to understand just how the pandemic has turned the act of voting upside down. So I called up 538 political reporter Nathaniel Rakic, who knows more about election administration than any person should have to.
Yeah, so almost every state made it easier to vote by mail in some way. That often took the form of going straight up to vote by mail, the way that Colorado, Washington and Oregon have been doing for years, which means every voter is automatically mailed a ballot. Other states didn't go quite that far. Maybe they mailed absentee ballot applications to all voters, but not the actual ballots. And then, of course, many states have lifted their excuse requirement wholesale.
So going into the year, 16 states required an excuse for people to vote absentee and only two states left that in place for their primaries and for the general election. Only five states will still be requiring an excuse.
So what were trends in voter turnout during the primaries? It was pretty high, actually, which was good and maybe surprising so early on in the pandemic, particularly on those March 17th primaries, which was like the first week that everything locked down, primary turnout definitely decreased. Now, that isn't necessarily due to the pandemic. I think it's probably that did play into it. But this is also the time, remember that the Democratic presidential primary season to be competitive.
So it makes sense that a lot of people who would have voted maybe decided it just wasn't worth their time. But we did see a trend later in the year, particularly as things reopened in kind of the late summer and in the fall where there was very consistently an increase in turnout versus the same election in 2016. It seems like overall the pandemic has not hurt voter turnout as we think about what might happen on Election Day.
It's worth thinking about what happened in the primaries. Were there problems then?
So first of all, long lines, this was a problem most infamously in Wisconsin. You know, many people had to wait hours, especially in Milwaukee and other urban areas in order to vote. You also had problems where people weren't receiving the absentee ballots that they requested. Wisconsin is a state that lets anyone vote by mail if they want to.
So a lot of people suddenly wanted to and they just weren't prepared for that. So you saw things like overloaded election officials. You heard talk about some of them working over 100 hours a week. You know, think about some of these small towns where it's just one or two people and suddenly they have to stuff envelopes with ballots as well as process the requests for hundreds or thousands of people.
And so you had problems where a lot of ballots didn't arrive at people's houses in time for them to vote. But thankfully, since around June 30th or so, states have reported a lot fewer problems with their primaries and things seem to be going more smoothly. Now, of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that the general election will go smoothly. It's just a totally different beast from the primaries. The turnout is just going to be so much higher in the general election than it was in any primary, which is going to put an additional strain on the system.
But I am cautiously optimistic that states have kind of figured out how to handle and avoid some of these problems that you saw really explode in April, May, June.
So we're heading into the general now. How many people are expected to vote in person vs. by absentee or mail in ballot?
So according to polls, they generally say that about 30 to 40 percent of people are planning to vote by mail. About 20 percent more people are planning to vote early in person. And that leaves about 40 or 50 percent of people who are planning to vote in person on Election Day. Now, historically, that's still like that'll still be a record number of people voting before Election Day. And you see that in the turnout numbers. So far, we've already had more than 40 million people cast their ballots, which is pretty unprecedented.
But more people, I think, will be voting in person than I think people might assume.
Do we have any sense of who the people are who are turning out to vote in person versus voting by mail?
Yeah, definitely. Some of the groups who say they are more likely to vote by mail include white people, also college graduates. You know, the more educated someone is, the more like. It is that they will cast a mail ballot and also finally older voters, so I mentioned earlier, there are five states that are still requiring excuses for voting absentee. But in all of those states, being a senior citizen is an excuse. A lot of older folks might be taking advantage of this option.
Have attitudes about absentee voting or mail in ballot voting changed during the pandemic?
Yeah, it's it's a pretty popular viewpoint. An overwhelming majority of Americans support the idea of voting by mail. Even if they aren't doing so personally, they think other people should have access to it. So a couple of polls that I polled are one survey from Pew that found that 65 percent of Americans say the option to vote earlier absentee should be available to anyone without a reason. And then another poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland and Ipsos found that.
Seventy four percent of Americans think that fear of the coronavirus should qualify as a reason to vote by mail.
What are states doing to protect voters from covid-19 if they do decide to go to the polls in person?
This is another thing that kind of states had to cobble together on the fly early in the pandemic, but has become pretty standard now in pretty much every state that I heard about in the latter stages of the primary, they were all taking the same precautions which are, you know, masks. Obviously, all poll workers wearing masks and actual voters are strongly encouraged to wear masks. A lot of places will provide masks if people don't have them on their own.
They're obviously socially distancing lines when possible. A lot of locations also that have been located in like senior living homes or maybe like tighter spaces, like a church basement or something have been moved to bigger spaces. In fact, a lot of sports arenas, interestingly, have opened as polling places this year. And of course, there's a ton of room for them to not only spread out voters widely, but also to process a lot of voters all at once, which is great.
You have hand sanitizer available at stations. You have plexi glass separating poll workers from voters. When I voted in my primary in my home state of Massachusetts, for example, I didn't get within six feet of anybody without plexiglass in between us felt safer than going to the grocery store. Quite frankly, another thing that they do is that instead of using kind of communal pens, most states have been giving out pens. Basically, they buy a bunch of big pens in bulk and then they give you the pen with the ballot and they say, this is your pen.
I know that a big worry this year has been finding enough poll workers since poll workers typically tend to be older and are more susceptible to covid.
In fact, Mitt estimated there could be a shortage of nearly 500000 poll workers this year. Just to get back to basics, what are the implications for voters when states don't have enough poll workers?
Yeah, so if you don't have enough poll workers, then you are not going to be able to staff in-person voting locations. That can then mean that either the number of in-person voting locations will be cut because states or localities just say we don't have enough people or in the worst case scenario, they think they have enough people and then people don't show up. And then a polling place is supposed to be open, actually doesn't. And they have to kind of scramble to to fill the gap.
And this happened with some of these early primaries as well in Florida, for example. And then, of course, when you closed polling places or consolidate them or even if you keep a polling place open, but maybe instead of having five workers and only has one workers, that leads to long wait times. We saw this kind of most infamously again in Wisconsin and Milwaukee. The number of polling places went from one hundred and eighty normally to just five in the primary.
And that was because they just couldn't find bodies to staff them. They actually had to call in the National Guard to do so. These disparities do tend to affect communities of color and cities more disproportionately because they tend to be squeezing more people into fewer voting locations.
To address this shortage, states have been trying to recruit younger people to be poll workers since they're less likely to experience severe covid-19 symptoms. They're also more familiar with the technologies used at the polls, which could be helpful to voters. Some states used social media campaigns or offering hazard pay for poll workers, and some companies are even giving their employees the day off if they volunteer at the polls.
And as a result, it looks like a lot of places are swimming in poll workers now, which is great. And I don't want to put too much emphasis on it because I've really just been hearing anecdotal reports. But so, for example, Philadelphia County and some of the suburban counties around Philadelphia that were really worried about this now say they have a surplus of poll workers. Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is located, has nearly 7000 applications for 2900 poll worker positions.
So like. These are really encouraging numbers, I'm not sure if maybe we're not hearing from the places that are still struggling. I think I'm cautiously optimistic that all of these campaigns to get people to be poll workers have help. And I think the fact that we haven't heard much about states saying they're going to have to close polling places is an optimistic sign for that.
Well, Nathaniel, thank you so much for speaking with me. It was a real pleasure for sure. Thanks, Anna. So we know more people will be voting from home this election, but what about the safety of those actually going to the polls to vote? What do we know about how risky that is? I talked to our senior science reporter, Maggie Curth, to help answer some of those questions.
So, Maggie, we're days away from the election and the country has already reached its third peak in the pandemic. And I'm wondering, just to start off, if you have any sense of where there's sort of a confluence between battleground states and covid. So, for example, what are the numbers looking like in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa?
Wisconsin is definitely the prototypical battleground state that is also the coldest state in America.
It's sort of emblematic of one of the things that I was talking to researchers about when we were working on a story about indoor and outdoor transmission, which is that this epicenter of the pandemic shifting from southern states towards northern states is what you've sort of seen is in the earlier wave in the summer. You know, you saw these cases in Texas, you saw all these cases in Florida. And that was where during that time of year, people had their houses shut up and they were in there on the air conditioning all day long.
And now that is shifting. And the places that are all shut up and people are going inside all the time are in the north. So what you're seeing is the battleground states that are starting to really experience fall and winter are the ones that are also experiencing a lot more covid.
And that's a really important point. The environment can have a big impact on behavior. Take, for example, Minnesota, where Maggie is. The weather has already gotten pretty cold.
There are State Health Department has been sort of saying that the increases in Minnesota have been based on small family groups and small friend groups getting together.
So it's not necessarily a thing where people are doing policy publicly that is bad for a pandemic, but it's a situation where enough people are sick and enough people are getting together and doing these kind of small what you might call like, oh, a small transgression, you know, like a thing that, oh, I'm probably fine if I just get like five or six people together. But when you're inside, those five or six people can be enough to really make a change in where the outbreaks are happening.
So given that we are now seeing some spikes, especially in certain battleground states, I'm curious how the risk of voting in person compares to other activities like, you know, going to the grocery store, for example.
I keep hearing these stories where we go and talk to researchers kind of trying to find out, like the nitty gritty details about risk. Right. And what we kind of keep running into is that we are collecting the data that would allow us to really cleanly give you exact answers. So I am right now reporting on two different papers about what happened during the Wisconsin primaries back in the spring. And one of them is suggesting that there was a direct relationship between density of voters at a polling place and increase in cases.
And another one is suggesting that the election didn't have much of an impact on an increase in cases at all.
And so there is I think there's I think this is kind of a hard thing to track. And part of what makes it hard to track is that we have not done robust contact tracing in the U.S..
Another thing that makes it really hard to track is that we don't you know, we have not instituted any widespread testing programs in the U.S. So any time we're trying to understand how a particular activity increases our risk of contracting covid, we're sort of stymied by the fact that we haven't traced these things in any, you know, systemic way, systematic way.
So it becomes like these really complicated little tangles that are really hard to tease apart.
And there's all sorts of layers to it.
Take, for example, a quirk in the data from Wisconsin's primary, the places where, like the polls had all been consolidated into fewer polls seem to have like more cases than the ones that didn't. But those places that consolidated their polling and that, you know, had more people going to individual polling locations were also often. It is that had lower socioeconomic status and communities of color where there are lots of other factors sort of going into play there where, you know, people might be living in more dense situations, people might be having jobs that force them into contact with the public more than, you know, somebody in, say, the suburbs.
What do we know at this point about the risk of outdoor versus indoor transmission? What is the risk of voters getting covid if they're outside waiting for the polls?
We know that the risk of indoor versus outdoor transmission, that indoor transmission is much, much, much, much, much, much, much more likely.
So we've been looking at these studies where they're compiling case reports of like, you know, thousands of cases and tiny fractions of them are turning out to be clearly linked to outdoor activities. The vast majority, vast, vast majority, greater than 90 percent are indoor linked.
And that happens because indoor air does not have as good of circulation for the most part. Right.
So for the most part, if somebody is coughing, if somebody is breathing out these, you know, small particles or even large particles of spit and virus and whatever else, those are going to be hanging around in the air longer.
They're going to be more likely to not get blown away on the breeze as they would if you are outside.
So while we can't actually quantify how risky it might be to vote, what we do know is that the more that you are inside a building with other people, the higher that your risk is. And I think that that is kind of the thing I'm sort of trying to take away for voting on Election Day is that, you know, if you have to wait in a line, you'd rather do it outside. You should be wearing your mask. Everybody else should be wearing their masks.
And the longer that you spend inside, the more your risk goes up. So those are things I think we have to keep in mind for all sorts of activities up to and including voting.
Is there anything in particular that voters should keep in mind while they're voting this year because of covid-19? One thing that happened back in the spring during the primaries is that people were using so much hand sanitizer when they went in to vote that the ballots got sort of soggy and clogged up the machines.
So there is probably a there is a good amount of hand sanitizer to use and there's an excessive amount of hand sanitizer to use. And if your ballot is getting damp, you're probably using more than you actually need to.
Maggie, how are you voting this year? I am voting on Election Day mainly out of curiosity.
I am in a new neighborhood and I now live in a majority minority neighborhood. And I am really curious to see how the city how the city manages the the poll availability here compared to some of the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods I lived in in the past. And I am really curious to talk to people who are voting on Election Day about like, you know, why they're making those choices and what they're worried about.
And so I'm planning on just showing up two blocks from my house at the junior high and doing it there. All right, Maggie.
Well, thank you so much for filling us in, keeping us safe on Election Day. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, thanks a bunch. If you want to find out more about Maggie's research on indoor versus outdoor transmission, head to five thirty eight dotcom.
And then if people are confused about, you know, how to vote this year, where can they get more information?
Well, I'm glad you asked, Anna, because we have 538 have such a tool. If you go to our page or just Google 538, how to vote. We have a big dashboard that not only has a pretty map of all the different rules which states are doing full on male voting versus which states require an excuse and everything in between. But we also have a state by state breakdown of all the different ways to vote. So by mail with the deadlines are early, what the dates are in person, there's a link to look up your polling place.
So however you want to vote, please check out that site and it should let you know how to do it.
Yes, listeners, that was a leading question, but I promise that this is a really great tool. Nathaniel did this Herculean effort with other 530 Aders Julia Wolfe and Maya, Sweedler and I've person. We found it extremely useful to figure out how to vote this year. That's it for this episode of podcast 19, if you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show. Email us a voice memo and ask podcast 19 at Gmail dot com.
That's Aske podcast one nine at Gmail dot com. I'm Anna Rothchild. Our producer is Hinduja Srinivasan. Chadwick Matlin is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.