Poll workers took COVID safety precautions during the June primary. Many more voters are expected for the general.

Election Day is coming just as the coronavirus pandemic ratchets up in the Philadelphia region. Health safety provisions are paramount for election officials, who’ve been working overtime to ensure a safe experience for anyone voting in person on Nov. 3.

The Office of City Commissioners will issue PPE to each location, and workers will follow and implement a number of guidelines determined in conjunction with the Philly Health Department.

One thing they won’t be doing? Wiping down voting machines after each use.

Officials advised poll workers not to disinfect voting machines between voters because, “too much cleaning solution can affect the touchscreen,” said committeeperson Amanda Feifer of the 2nd Ward. Instead, election workers are instructed to reach on-call technicians “if a machine gets coughed on or something,” Feifer told Billy Penn.

Instead, the plan calls for voters to wear gloves, said Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for the City Commissioners. Technicians will “wipe down the machines as necessary.”

Philadelphia’s current COVID safety plan for Election Day includes:

  • Masks for poll workers, voters and poll watchers
  • Hand sanitizer for each polling location.
  • Face shields, required for poll workers who can’t wear masks
  • Providing one glove per voter, used to sign the poll book and to vote
  • Installing, “to the extent feasible,” transparent barriers between poll workers and voters
  • Requiring at least 6 ft. of social distancing, to be marked by poll workers
  • Signage from the Health Department about mask use and other safety measures
  • Volunteers trained by the Health Department will be on hand to help with health safety guidelines

Some wards will go above and beyond these provisions to protect voters during the pandemic.

Marvin Robinson, a judge of election in West Philly’s 4th Ward, said he had a machine operator on site to clean voting machines between uses during the primary. He expects to have the same for the general election.


Feifer, of the city’s 2nd Ward in Queen Village and Bella Vista, has worked with her committee to come up with a custom plan for each of the 13 polling places under their jurisdiction.

Some will have one door for entry and a separate for exit, for example. Each will have an additional gallon of hand sanitizer. Then there are the styluses. Some who worked the primary said the provided glove didn’t always interact well with the voting machine’s touch screen. So, after consulting with a public health expert and epidemiologist, the ward decided to purchase styluses to be used if the gloves fail.

“The glove thing is, in my view, imperfect, because people can still put on a glove and then touch their face and then touch their pen,” Feifer said.

Expecting high turnout, ward leaders urge use of drop boxes

Election officials across the city are also bracing themselves for unusual scenarios, like having to process voters who applied for mail ballots but then decided they want to vote in person instead.

“I’m expecting to do a lot of provisional ballots and to have to spoil mail-in ballots,” said Feifer. The process is timely, and committeepeople and ward leaders told Billy Penn they expect it to potentially hold up already long lines.

The leader of Philadelphia’s sky-high-turnout 9th Ward, state Rep. Chris Rabb, said he has instructed his team to divert voters who want to try to surrender their ballots, and encourage them to place them in drop boxes or nearby satellite locations instead.

There’s a racial gap in who has chosen to request and submit mail in ballots ahead of the election, Rabb said.

He thinks wards that are majority Black or people of color will see higher in-person turn out than majority white wards. Rabb’s racially diverse 9th Ward, which encompasses Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, has the highest rate of mail-in ballot requests in the city, with 660 requests per 1,000 voters, per data from the City Commissioners.

Philadelphia has reopened almost all of its original 800 polling locations, more than half of which were closed for the primary, when the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak in the region.

Robinson, of the 4th Ward, is back in his regular polling place at Haverford Library. He’s expecting long lines filled with some of the 600 to 800 new voters he helped register ahead of the general election.

“I think there might be a possibility [voter turnout] might come near Obama’s stats, or it’s going to outdo him,” Robinson said. “I think people are really motivated to let one person know that this isn’t a one-person country. This is our country.”

To chat with a live person about any question you have regarding voting, text EQUALINFO to 73224.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...