Many US states will allow voting without a mask in next week’s presidential election, in an attempt to avoid sparking conflict at polling places where election officials already fear outbreaks of violence.
Even some states that have state or local mask mandates aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus have decided, officially or unofficially, not to enforce the rules on voters, local officials say.
Election officials from several US counties told the Financial Times that they would arrange for unmasked voters to cast ballots outside or in separate areas isolated from other voters.
Poll workers in St Charles county, Missouri, were initially told to “act surprised” and don a mask if voters asked why there were not wearing one.
“You may act surprised that you don’t have a face mask on properly and then apologise as you put the mask on,” said an email sent to poll workers last month. “Wear your mask correctly until the voter leaves the polling place. Please do this every time a voter says something to you.”
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Director of elections for the St Charles County Election Authority, Kurt Bahr, told the Financial Times by email that those instructions were “poorly worded”, adding: “The point was to tell election workers that while they didn’t fall under the county employee mask mandate, which required employees to wear a mask while in all county buildings, they should wear one if requested to do so by a voter.”
The county has since changed its policy to require poll workers to wear masks or face shields, he said.
In Texas, a group of minority voters brought a legal challenge to the state’s decision to allow unmasked voting, on the grounds that it would interfere with the right to vote of minorities who have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a federal district court in Texas ruled in their favour, granting a preliminary injunction barring Texas from exempting voters from its mask mandate, but the state immediately appealed. A federal appeals court later stayed that decision.
Election officials are making different arrangements to allow unmasked voting. Stuart Harvey, election director for Frederick county, Maryland, near Washington DC, said that at smaller county polling places unmasked voters would be asked to remain outside and put their ballot in a drop box, while at larger venues they would be “escorted in very quickly, asked to vote quickly and move back out again”.
Poll workers have been told to call police if any voter is disruptive, he said, after a stand-off with an unmasked voter in a Maryland June primary poll.
Lily Mueller, a local college student who will act as a “line manager” in Frederick county on polling day, said she was instructed to “stay calm and civil” when interacting with anyone unmasked.
“I can ask them politely to put it on but, if they don’t want to, I can’t make them. I’m sure most of the people will have masks on but I’m just hoping the others aren’t angry”.
Some election officials said their state judged the public health risk posed by unmasked voters as less important than the risk of confrontations between poll workers and voters, some of whom may be armed in some states where that is allowed.
Others decided to allow unmasked voting to ensure they do not interfere with the right to vote of those who oppose wearing face coverings, as some supporters of President Donald Trump do.
“Personally, I don’t think you should have to wear a mask to vote and I think that would be considered voter suppression,” Kim Travis, a Republican poll worker in rural Walworth county, Wisconsin, said.
Wisconsin is one of the US states worst hit by the pandemic, with a seven-day average Covid-19 positivity rate over 25 per cent. But Ms Travis stressed that local polling places use Plexiglas shields, social distancing and enhanced cleaning to guard against health risks.
Still, Democrat Christine Hammerstrom, 73, a poll worker in the same county, expects even some voting officials to go unmasked. “I am going to wear a mask like the medical people do and a surgical mask over that”, she said.
Michael Kang, an elections expert at Northwestern Pritzker school of law, said he did not believe there was a strong constitutional concern over forcing voters to wear masks:
“The analogy is, you don’t wear shoes or a shirt we can turn you away”, he said, although he added, “it may not be worth it to really clamp down” and risk “getting people on the right too riled”.
Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy election director in Montgomery county, Maryland, said masks were required to vote but so far that has not caused problems in early voting.
“Approximately 25,000 voters cast ballots during early voting in our county [on Monday], and I only heard of a single incident where a voter refused to wear a mask. That voter was brought a ballot and allowed to mark it outside.”
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