CDC Issues Updated Guidelines for Voting Safety

Carolyn Crist

October 26, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The CDC released new guidance Friday around precautionary measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus at polls, basing it on survey responses from Delaware poll workers who oversaw primary voting on Sept. 15.

Most voters wore masks, the poll workers said, but people didn't always wear them correctly or consistently cover their mouth and nose. Social distancing seemed to work in polling lines, they added, but there were still gaps in infection control.

"Enhanced attention to reducing congregation in polling locations, correct mask use, and enabling safe voting options for ill voters are critical considerations for elections to minimize risk for voters and poll workers," the CDC COVID-19 Response Team and Delaware health officials wrote.

The guidance, published as an early release in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, adds to the CDC's initial voting advice issued in June, which was also updated on Friday.

The research team surveyed 522 poll workers, who said that face masks and social distancing at the polls were feasible and widely adopted. At the same time, they noted the need for additional training around COVID-19 safety measures and additional personal protective gear. Older voters and ill voters, in particular, may need additional help and alternative voting options as Election Day approaches, the poll workers said.

"In settings with community spread, infection control measures should be followed, presuming that ill voters might have COVID-19," the research team wrote. "Ensuring that ill voters can vote while maintaining poll worker and voter safety will be essential to minimizing transmission without restricting voting rights."

A large majority of poll workers said that voting booths were spaced out, lines directed voters to move in one direction at the polling location, and signs reminded voters to maintain social distancing throughout the voting experience. Some locations used physical barriers, such as plexiglass shields, at registration desks and between voting booths. Nearly all poll workers said hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies were available, but some ran out during the day.

About 72% of poll workers said they had contact with more than 100 people during the day, and 27% said they had close contact for more than 15 minutes with more than 100 people. Only 19 said they knowingly had contact with someone who had COVID-19, and 15 wore masks during that time, but none said they had personal protective gear such as gloves or face shields.

"Adherence to mitigation measures is important not only to protect voters but also to protect poll workers, many of whom are older adults," the CDC team wrote.

The guidance applies to early voting as well, the CDC indicated. Several states opened advanced voting locations at the beginning of October, and New York began early voting on Saturday, where voters at several locations lined up an hour before polling places opened, according to ABC 7. In many videos posted on social media, an overwhelming majority of voters wore masks and stood six feet apart.

However, COVID-19 safety precautions aren't required at every polling location. After Galveston County Judge Mark Henry was confronted by a poll worker for not wearing a mask at his voting location in Texas last week, the judge issued an executive order a few days later to allow voters to cast their ballots without a mask, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The order allows the county to impose a $1,000 fine on poll workers who turn away voters without a mask. Henry still strongly encouraged voters to follow safety guidelines and wear masks in public but said people shouldn't be turned away from the polls without a mask. The CDC has recommended that polling locations stock extra masks and offer one to voters who don't have one.


CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Adoption of Strategies to Mitigate Transmission of COVID-19 During a Statewide Primary Election — Delaware, September 2020."

CDC, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Polling Locations and Voters."

ABC 7, "Huge turnout as early voting begins in New York."

Houston Chronicle, "Galveston County bans turning away voters without a mask."