Weekly line: How to safely cast your ballot—and calm Election Day stress

Daily Briefing

    Election season has long been a stressful time for Americans, and this year, the country's coronavirus epidemic is kicking Election Day anxiety up a notch, as many voters wonder: Is it safe to go to the polls?

    The 2020 elections—and what it means for health care

    In response to these concerns, CDC last week issued new tips on how to reduce your risk of contracting or transmitting the novel coronavirus while casting your vote. (And if you're one of the many Americans feeling anxious about the election, experts have some suggestions for dealing with election-season stress, as well.)

    How to vote safely, according to CDC

    In last week's guidance—based on a study evaluating safety recommendations during Delaware's primary election on Sept. 15—CDC provides some general reminders on the virus and how it transmits, distinguishes between lower- and higher-risk polling options, and offers suggestions on how individual voters can stay safe while casting their ballots.

    Broadly speaking, the guidance advises Americans to "[k]eep in mind" that "[t]he more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of [the coronavirus's] spread." The agency explains that the novel coronavirus "is mostly spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough, or sneeze," and cautions "that a person can get Covid-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes."

    Keeping those factors in mind, the agency details what constitutes a higher- and lower-risk polling option. According to the guidance, "[e]lections with only in-person voting on a single day are higher risk for [the coronavirus's] spread because there will be larger crowds and longer wait times." In comparison, "[l]ower risk election polling settings include those" that offer a "wide variety of voting options," "longer voting periods," and "other feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations at the same time," the agency said.

    Many states have preemptively taken these concerns into consideration and implemented measures aimed at ensuring Americans can vote safely amid the epidemic, including expanding vote-by-mail efforts, installing ballot drop boxes, and opening polls early to avoid massive crowds on Election Day. And at least one state, Tennessee, is even opening special polling places specifically intended for Americans who are infected with the novel coronavirus or showing symptoms of Covid-19, in hopes of minimizing the risk of those voters spreading the virus to others.

    But if you do find yourself voting in-person at a general polling station on election day, the guidance also details specific suggestions for in-person voters to stay safe. According to the guidance, voters should:

    • "Bring a stylus or similar object for use with touchscreen voting machines," but be sure to "[c]heck with poll workers before using" it;
    • "Bring [their] own black ink pen";
    • Practice good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette;
    • Stay physically distant (at least six feet) from others;
    • Try to avoid crowds by voting "at off-peak times, such as mid-morning," or—if possible—by "monitor[ing] the voter line from [their] car and join[ing] it when it's shorter";
    • Wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer after using voting equipment; and
    • Wear face masks or coverings.

    However, one thing CDC doesn't recommend is disinfecting voting equipment yourself. "Electronic voting equipment can be damaged by cleaners and disinfectants," the agency said. "If you use hand sanitizer before touching the voting equipment, ensure your hands are completely dry to avoid damaging the equipment."

    How to calm election stress

    Of course, election stress isn't necessarily limited to concerns about safety while voting, and many Americans have reported more generalized concerns about the election. But experts have some tips to help address those feelings, as well.

    For example, Nefertiti Nowell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, told USA Today that trying to "master your morning" could help. "If you can master your morning, you can master your day," she said.

    Nowell's "mastering your morning" theory could look different for everyone. For instance, Nowell suggested that you could do some deep breathing or brief stretching exercises, meditation, yoga, or make a list of some things you're grateful for—but whatever you practice, keeping it short is key.

    "I've learned that if it's anything over five minutes, people are less likely to do it," Nowell said. She added, "Everybody has three minutes to get their blood flowing. And so if we take those three minutes to do that, then it really gets us centered for that day."

    In addition, Nowell stressed that the morning practice should be "more about mental health than it is just physical health. It's the getting the blood flowing for the body but even for you to say, 'I have control over something. I've got control over three minutes of my morning.'"

    JaNaé Taylor, a counselor, told USA Today also suggested using deep breathing to calm stress—in particular, using the so-called "4-7-8 breath." To use the technique, you inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then exhale for a count of eight, according to USA Today.

    Taylor said the practice can "hel[p] reoxygenate your blood, but it also takes you out of fight-or-flight response, which is sometimes what we feel when we're getting really anxious." She explained, "It calms us down and slows us down. And people can do it in the (voting) line."

    Experts also suggest that scheduling plans for after you finish voting or the next day—whether it be working out or connecting with a friend—can help to reduce stress.

    "I would absolutely plan it out in advance, because it gives you a sense of control and it helps you understand a little bit more about what to expect, and it's a form of self care," Chloe Carmichael, a licensed clinical psychologist, told USA Today. "Just the same way when we plan a vacation, we actually start experiencing the benefits of the vacation even before it happens, just because we know that it's coming."

    Another tactic that could calm your stress is writing about your thoughts and feelings regarding the election in a one-page journal entry, Carmichael said. "Sometimes writing it all down can relieve our brain of the burden of feeling like you have to keep all of those points active. … And thinking about the idea of potentially that page being passed on down to our children or our children's children can also help to put the whole event into a little bit of perspective."

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