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Vote with your face? Masks one more thing voters will get to decide on Election Day

Although Illinois requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, such as grocery or drug stores, mandating their use in the voting booth would raise some sticky legal issues of possible voter suppression. 

Election workers and voters wear masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 at a polling place during Maine’s primary election in July.
Election workers and voters wear masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 at a polling place during Maine’s primary election in July.
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP

Chicago election officials plan to “strongly encourage” but will not require voters to wear face masks to their polling places this fall.

They say their decision was made in accordance with current COVID-19 guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Illinois Department of Public Health — neither of which mandate the use of face coverings for voting.

Election officials in suburban Cook, DuPage and Lake counties told me they are awaiting updated guidance from the state before finalizing their own face mask policies.

But a statement Wednesday from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office gave no indication he will recommend any further restrictions before early voting begins in October.

“Under the Governor’s executive order, face coverings are required any time a person is unable to maintain social distance of six feet. The administration encourages local election officials to plan for and ensure as much social distancing as possible during the voting process and also encourages those voting on election day to ensure they use a face covering,” said press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh.

Please note the operative word is “encourages” — same as in Chicago election officials’ plans.

It’s the strength of that encouragement that could lead to problems.

Although Illinois requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, such as grocery or drug stores, mandating their use in the voting booth would raise some sticky legal issues of possible voter suppression.

A face mask requirement could be viewed as creating an illegal barrier to voting for those who might refuse to wear them — on whatever grounds.

Election officials throughout the state are urging voters to cast their ballots by mail this fall to avoid any potential health risks associated with voting in person.

They’re also making it easier than ever to do so, and while I appreciate the opportunity, I’d rather vote in person, probably during early voting.

Somehow, I had assumed that would be a less dicey proposition than it was during the March primary when we were still in the early stages of dealing with the coronavirus and mask-wearing had yet to catch on.

Election judges and poll workers at Old St. Mary’s Church, 1500 S. Michigan, on March 17.
Election judges and poll workers at Old St. Mary’s Church, 1500 S. Michigan, on March 17.
Andy Grimm/Sun-Times file

But as much as I would prefer from a health standpoint seeing my fellow voters wear a mask, I can’t really see any way around the legal entanglements that would arise from requiring them to do so.

It was pointed out to me that we don’t allow voters to come to the polls naked, or in a perhaps more practical example, we don’t permit them to wear T-shirts advertising which candidate they support. If we can do that, why can’t we make them wear a mask during a public health crisis? That’s the argument.

Unfortunately, as we know, refusal to wear a mask has become a political statement of its own in 2020, which some people would defend as stridently as the right to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Election officials in Chicago, Lake County and DuPage County all say they will require election judges to wear masks for the fall election and promise to supply the masks.

 A person protests against the passage of a mail-in voting bill during a Nevada Republican Party demonstration in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
A person protests against the passage of a mail-in voting bill during a Nevada Republican Party demonstration in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The state is also expected to provide local election officials with masks to be given to voters who need them. I’d say the problems will start if individual election judges try to make it a rule. In their defense, they will be the ones putting their own health at greatest risk by sitting in crowded polling places all day breathing in others’ germs.

“Obviously, there must be mask exceptions for people who have health issues that are so serious that wearing a mask creates a problem. But we anticipate that generally, our in-person voters will embrace social distancing and wearing masks,” said Marisel A. Hernandez, chairwoman on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

A new state law makes Election Day a state holiday in Illinois, which election officials believe will allow them to spread out in schools and other government facilities being used as polling places. That should make social distancing easier to accomplish.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden puts on a mask after a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, last week.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden puts on a mask after a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, last week.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Many privately owned buildings that have traditionally served as polling places have instituted mask requirements during the pandemic, which may preclude them from hosting voters this year.

Lake County Clerk Robin O’Connor said some private facilities sought to go further and require voters to submit to temperature checks before admittance to the building. Instead, the county will seek alternative voting sites for those locations, O’Connor said.

You can certainly see how this could become the next great battleground in the COVID-19 culture wars.

They tell me that those who are worried about the face mask situation, one way or another, should just vote by mail.

That way you could even vote naked.