If You Can Grocery Shop in Person, You Can Vote in Person

If You Can Grocery Shop in Person, You Can Vote in Person

Zeke Emanuel has a message for jittery Americans ahead of a momentous election: Voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic is about as safe as going to the grocery store.

In early July, Emanuel—the bioethicist and former Obama-administration health adviser—led a group of experts in developing a detailed and widely circulated chart that advised Americans about the relative health risk of more than two dozen common activities. Taking a jog or having an outdoor picnic is low risk for transmission of COVID-19, for example, while going grocery shopping is slightly higher, but still relatively safe. A visit to the doctor’s office or a museum fell into the medium category, while activities like partying indoors, traveling by plane, or going to church were the most risky.

Nowhere on the chart, however, was an activity especially important in 2020: voting. Its absence was conspicuous at a moment when the safety of this basic civic act has become the subject of a deeply polarizing national debate. During the early months of the pandemic, Democrats accused Republicans of forcing people to “risk their life” to vote in person as they pushed for the expansion of vote by mail against GOP opposition. President Donald Trump has insisted in-person voting is safe, even as he’s tried to undermine confidence in the election itself.

Even now, after the country has gradually and often fitfully reopened, some Democrats are reluctant to say definitively whether it’s safe to vote in person.

Yet with the start of in-person early voting just weeks away in some states, Emanuel is back with an update. Public-health officials have learned a lot about the transmission of COVID-19 since the spring, Emanuel told me, and the message around voting must change. “There’s a legitimate concern, but I do think we can make it much safer by following the precautions,” he said. “You don’t want people to be disenfranchised by the pandemic, and you should encourage people that it’s safe. It’s like shopping.”