People are practicing social distancing at a District voting center. (Anthony Tilghman/ The Washington Informer)
**FILE** People are practicing social distancing at a District voting center. (Anthony Tilghman/ The Washington Informer)

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the District, how can residents who vote be confident that they will be around to see the results next year?

That’s the compelling question in 2020.

The ongoing presence of COVID-19 became the main reason the D.C. Board of Elections voted in the summer to send each registered voter in the District a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3 general election. With that option, elections officials say voters can either mail it in, drop it in or go to the polls.

Frank Wilds, a longtime Ward 5 political activist, said he will go to the polls on election day. He acknowledged that seniors like him are more vulnerable than others to COVID-19 but said that won’t steer him away from the polls.

“I will walk to my polling station at Bertie Backus [Junior High School] and stand in line to vote,” Wilds said. “And yes, I will wear my mask while standing in line and voting. I did receive a mail-in ballot from the board of elections but I am going to go ahead and go to the polls anyway. I do have those conditions that trigger the coronavirus because I do suffer from high blood pressure and have had triple bypass surgery but I want to vote at the polls.”

Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the District’s health department director, said she recognizes the civic duty of residents to cast a ballot. However, she counsels residents to do so safely if they decide to go to an early voting or election day center.

“If you are sick, do not go to a voting center,” Nesbitt said at an Oct. 26 news conference. “You must protect your fellow voters and poll workers from getting sick. When you are in line at the polls and in the center, wear a mask. Be sure to have a mask that you will be comfortable wearing for a long period of time. Also, practice social distancing by standing six feet from the voter in front of you and make sure you practice good hygiene by washing your hands before you go to vote. It’s a good idea to bring hand sanitizer with you to vote, too.”

Nesbitt said safer methods such as voting by mail and utilizing drop boxes can still take place even though the 32 early voting centers started on Oct. 27 and the 95 election day centers will operate on Nov. 3.

The national buzz on social media about possible violence and voter intimidation during the election season hasn’t gone unnoticed by District officials. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the news conference the Metropolitan Police Department, the D.C. National Guard and the D.C. Homeland Security Department are prepared “to keep D.C. voters safe.” Karl Racine, the District’s attorney general, has set up an email and a phone number for voters to call if they are intimidated while trying to vote.

Raul Marcias, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Marcias said there are laws against voter intimidation at the federal and state levels and poll workers have undergone training to stop the practice.

“We are in a time when there is talk in the media about elections being stolen and that has created an environment of suspicion,” he said. “Voters should not go to the polls in fear,” he said. But if they encounter problems “they should contact polling officials and civil rights organizations for assistance.”

“If there are incidents of voter intimidation, voters should tell a poll worker immediately,” he said.

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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